Monday, December 29, 2008

Knights of the Round Table

Apart from the guy mentioned in yesterday's note and his playwriting colleagues Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn and a host of actors like Paul Scofield, another five who refused to accept a knighthood:

1. LS Lowry - painter

2. David Hockney - artist

3. Michael Faraday - chemist, experimenter, demonstrator, and the man who made electricity usable

4. Frederick Sanger - the only living double Nobel prizewinner, without his work we could not yet know the structures of basic proteins, let alone be able to sequence the human genome

5. Humphrey Lyttleton - jazz trumpeter, cartoonist, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cricket and Life and Death

In memory of Harold Pinter who died on Christmas Eve, my top five test batsmen:

5. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar - Needs no introduction

4. David Ivon Gower - Apparently all style and grace and elegance, played as if without a care in the world, but still England's most reliable run-getter

3. Sourav Chandidas Ganguly - India's David Gower, but also an explosive one-day batsman and an agressive inspirational captain. And he's Bengali.

2. Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards - While the rest of the world complained of West Indies' fast bowler policy, Viv just swatted away bouncers from in front of his unprotected head. In an era before batsman-friendly field restrictions, he scored just as fast as he liked. Simply the best batsman I've ever seen.

1. Bradman - obviously.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cooking Christmas Lunch

As it's festive break, please excuse a short personal post.

I rarely cook. But a recent long vacation in India (see here and here) reignited my taste buds. And I've discovered it's easy. Time-consuming and tedious, but easy. The results are excellent, even though I say so myself. Nobody else does.

My wife says it's because I have such low expectations. Because I like simple dals and tarkaris. But I do things properly, fresh spices - no pre-bought pastes, not because they are universally pricey, but because they are universally vile.

One issue is that you can only get these ingredients in "Indian" shops, not in the big supermarket that supply our basic weekly requirements. And those shops are a bit out of the way, designed for local users. Whenever we drive down, there's never anywhere to park. Problem.

Problem sorted. Tomorrow, while most of the world sits down to christmas lunch, I'll pop down then. They're always open. Thank god not everyone's a christian.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bidding Gambling and Voting

There 's stuff in the news about "penny auctions". For example the BBC reports:
I think bidding on penny auction sites is akin to a gambling-like experience," Professor Griffiths said. "Obviously, when people are bidding again and again and again and they don't actually win the item in the end, that's very much like gambling."

However, Juha Koski from online auction site disagrees. "We have two experts who have given us their opinion on this. This is definitely a game of skill and would not form under any circumstances under the definition of gambling."

That was the most surprising disagreement since Madoff disagreed with proposed hedge fund regulation. Five reasons why these auctions are really lotteries:

1. The gambler pays for every "bid", each bid is essentially a non-refundable ticket

2. The final price of the item bears minimal relation to the value of the item on the open market

3. The lottery operator (or seller) gains most profit not from the winning bidder but instead from the number of bids made (or tickets bought)

4. The operators argue that entry needs significant skill. Actually I agree - in the same sense that choosing lottery numbers requires significant skill

5.Sometimes the winning price is the lowest unique bid, that essentially proves it

It's obvious. If the supposed regulators cannot work this out then they are either incompetent statistical morons or subservient slaves of the gaming industry.

[note: yes I know that choosing lottery numbers requires some "skill" to avoid picking the obvious numbers that other people are more likely to have picked]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

All's Well That Starts Well

Why the guy playing lead role in a Shakespeare play is like the priest conducting a religious wedding:

1. they both need to learn their lines

2. they both dress in uncomfortable period costumes

3. they both need to be male (very few exceptions)

4. they both talk in an old form of language that nobody really uses these days

5. the better the actor, the better the performance

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Peopleweb

Really just a follow-up to the previous post. In the style of economist Tyler Cowen and his regular sentence of the day, I quote Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing and other new marketing handbooks. From Seth's blog today:

57% of the marketers surveyed hadn't read a blog in the last year. These people are incompetent and should be fired.

Sorry, that's more than one sentence. Anyway, people have different and varied interests. Lack of interest in the web 2.0 should not be an absolute killer. Yet to put it into perspective I'll quote something obvious from Neil Perkin again , then follow with something from his last note:

It is irrelevant whether people prefer writing a blog, posting their pictures on flickr, or Facebook, or their passing thoughts on twitter, or whether they do all or any combination of the above - the point is is that they are doing it at all.

Advertising has to learn to help people do their thing with each other, rather than send messages to the world in the hope of making an impact.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Recruiters - Employ Firestarters

People should listen more than they speak. So we should read more than we write. Consequently I often find great blog posts that I likely could have written. Examples here and here. But recently I found a great blog post that I likely would have written.

Firestarters from Neil Perkin, Director of Marketing & Strategy for the commercial functions of IPC Media. It's excellent. Not only is it "I couldn't have put it better myself" but it's "exactly how I'd have put it myself".

Times are tough. The recruitment market is tough. But here are 5 reasons why employing people who blog is more important than ever:

1. They start fires. Blogging forces you to come up with new stuff. To be interesting.
2. They understand the value of connection. And are connected. To other interesting people.
3. They get digital. They appreciate the nuances and potential of social media. And how it works. Because they're doing it, not looking at it.
4. They network like crazy.
5. But most of all, because they're bothered. They have an opinion. They're not afraid to express it. They're passionate about their subject. And real passion is rare indeed.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Recipe to build a Kolkata suburb

1. A few acres of land
2. A few thousand families

Cooking time:
Sixty years

For each family:
1. Fence of your personal area with bamboo and twine, then string up a temporary shelter in the middle of it.
2. When you can afford to, replace the temporary shelter with a mud shack, keeping a small plot to grow your vegetables or tether your goat
3. When you can afford to, replace the mud shack with a fairly solid brick and plaster structure
4. As funds allow, gradually add floors to give yourself more living space
5. Tear the whole house down and build a block of flats on the same little plot, extending right to the roadside. Goodbye green space, hello modern suburb.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Urban Village

I've been away. Top five reasons why a congested Kolkata suburb of 2008 is like a traditional English village of 1908

1. The same people have lived in the same houses for generations. Almost no geographical mobility. Everybody hangs out at the same local watering holes.

2. The local store owner lives above his shop just a couple of houses down the road from you. He stocks everything and knows the price of everything. You ask him for what you need to buy, he hands it to you. Open all hours.

3. The local bank manager lives in the same street too. New accounts and loan acceptance are based largely on personal recommendation.

4. Windows and doors are open all day, most people walk to work, kids play in the street.

5. The local rag'n'bone man comes round daily with his animal-drawn trailer to collect your reusable household waste

Sounds ideal, but there is a lot that was wrong with that world, and it is disappearing fast - because now is the age of the department store - tomorrow may be the age of the internet, that will be very different again.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Far From Feeling

I read Marginal Revolution. There found a link to the Typealyzer. It parses the text of a submitted URL and then makes an automated attempt to show the parts of the brain that were dominant during writing.

So, this is not really me, but this is my blog:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy [sic] attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality.

So far so "good" ... but it finishes with:

Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Obviously not true?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Length DID Matter

Diversion. A few of my favourite things. Guests on the classic BBC radio show Desert Island Discs are allowed to choose eight records. I know it's only a hypothetical game, but it's not called "your eight top tracks". So why don't guests choose longer tracks to maximise enjoyment? My epic list here.

1. Bat out of Hell - Meat Loaf

Possibly Jim Steinman's best known song, but as already noted here, I could have taken almost any of his works.

2. Grendel - Marillion

Not just because it is 18 minutes of the finest interplay between keyboard and guitar ever recorded, but an interesting story too, the first great epic of English literature told from the perspective of the beast rather than the traditional hero.

3. Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Iron Maiden

Obviously fine poetry, but also the epitome of the new wave of British heavy metal.

4. Kowtow - Pendragon

I first heard it live at the Marquee Club back in the days when I went to gigs. Astounding.

5. The Future Just Aint What it Used to Be - Pandora's Box

Another Jim Steinman composition, but this time the rock opera equivalent of a soulful ballad.

I'll stop here. So that still leaves three songs for another time.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bloody Bombay Bombers

I did actually write a few words here on Wednesday evening but withheld hitting the "post" button. Methinks there was some insight there, but my gut reaction to the attack on Mumbai did not make pleasant reading. One day, when the war is over, then perhaps I'll publish it.

For now I'm going to try to think of some softer material for a few days till the dust settles and the red mist clears.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Big Apple

One of my old posts has been picked up today at the world's favourite Metrotwin site. At last. Superb.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Network Design

I mentioned that I did database design. From early readings of Codd and Date nearly two decades ago, have spent a professional lifetime grappling with the practical implementations of third normal form relational models and also their "modern" multidimensional variants. The process of mapping real world phenomena to basic binary patterns is to me the single most important factor in the success of any computer system, so it's no surprise that I genuinely enjoy it.

As with the central nervous system of any organism, as with the human brain, as with consciousness itself, it is the pattern of connections that defines its being and purpose - it is the topology of the neural network that determines who we are, not the physical implentation of that pattern. You could lose any nerve in your body, but if that nerve were replaced by an equivalent electrical transmitter with the same trigger and firing mechanism, then your essence would be unchanged, your personality would be unchanged, your thoughts would be unchanged. Every thought that we have is the process of creating new connections.

But as it is topology that counts, on a data model or a tube map or a nervous system, the representation of that network on a two dimensional sheet can be shown in any number of apparently different ways, but so long as the relationship of nodes to connectors is the same then the processing will be the same. It does not matter to the logic of an electrical circuit if the wires are layed out differently. However, where art meets science, it matters to me. Certain patterns of symmetry and chaos are considered more pleasing than others, possibly where those resonate with basic natural patterns. So the "look" of a data model matters - not so much as its topology, but it still matters.

So network design is a massive subject, one that can't really be summarised within brief guidelines. But top five principles of representing network design to follow shortly.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

B of the Bang

Councils in the UK are often sued for frivolous, even dishonest reasons. Examples here.

But in an almost literal reversal of fortune, the makers of a supposedly dangerous sculpture this week paid over a million pounds in compensation to Manchester City Council. Story here.

Now I have noticed something similar in my own home town, and I'm wondering who I can sue. Admittedly it took many years to be constructed up to its full height, but now it is equally tall and equally threatening. Bits seem to fall off it every year. It seems to inspire strange yobbish behaviour. It's probably of foreign build - up in Scandinavia I've seen lines of similar sculptures stretching for vast distances.

Oh, it's a christmas tree.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Free Will Defined

Yes, I know that my previous note quoted Rush completely out of context, I know the lyrics actually appear to be a simple rejection of astrological and theological bullshit rather than any serious objectivist anthem, and it was certainly not written to be a justification for indecision.

But within the simplified hundred-word school-level boundaries of this blog, can I define free will? Without recourse to any Kant or Locke or Hume. Define it to be a useful phrase in a practical sense with no philosophical spin at all. Free will as it should be defined, here today.

Free will is simply an expression of the fact that nobody else can control your thoughts. Nobody else can read your mind. If only you see a coin turn to heads or tails, nobody else can tell which it was. Sure there are machines that might start to use predictive indicators such as sweat and blood flow and even general areas of brain activity to start to approximate your maniacal tendencies. But today those are expensive unreliable fakeable proxy indicators.

Nobody else can read your thoughts, let alone control them. That's it.

Monday, November 17, 2008


See jhal. If Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams and Stephen Fry can coin their own words, then so can I.

Without the "n", the word is a well known import from Germany. But the original carries strong negative connotations, malicious pleasure from the discomfort of others. And that is not nice.

But sometimes the others are your friends, people for whom you genuinely wish well. Yet occasionally, despite your best advice, they may make the wrong decision. Free will. No harm done, but a lesson learned. Schadenfreunde.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Free Will

This is not going to be a textbook philosophical treatise, more just the view from the hangover after a big night out.

There is an oft-quoted saying - that people regret more of the things they didn't do than the things they did do ...

but like all oft-quoted sayings, that's a load of context-specific twaddle.

Sometimes you might think that you'll regret not going somewhere - but when you later learn the fate of those who did go there, then you'll be grateful. Grateful to whom? To your own decision-making capability.

Or as noted by Neil Peart - if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Frying Language

Oh frabjous day. I love it when "someone famous" expresses the same opinion that I've been banging on about here since the dawn of blogtime, especially when that "someone famous" is a linktastic legend. Five quotes almost randomly selected from 5000 words of pure bliss:

1. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.
Yes. Leave my words alone.

2. the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side.
He's not, and I'm not.

3. There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories [but] Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? ... Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades.
My echo - Trussed or Trust.

4. The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be?
I call it Consultantspeak

5. I think what offends [us] when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. ... But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. ... Context, convention and circumstance are all.
Exactly. I actually said context and implied meaning were everything. Close enough.

He even recommends Steven Pinker! The whole blessay is excellent. However, Mr Fry, there is something to be said for conciseness too.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Burying Bridges

There were once-in-a-generation news headlines this week. The presidential election (RB wins). The drastic cut in interest rates (RB loses). These massive stories are a chance for political cowards to bury bad news.

That's what Boris Johnson and his gang seems to have done. For all the pre-mayoral-election talk of needing to regenerate and improve London's infrastructure, yesterday there was a little announcement that ten major capital projects have been scrapped.

Now some cuts I could understand. But one particular cancellation is just wrong. I have been driving around London for much of the last twenty years. Travel is often difficult bordering on impossible. But (in my opinion) the single worst bottleneck in the entire city is the Blackwall Tunnel.

The western stretch of the Thames has bridges every few hundred yards. Yet between the central Tower Bridge and the Essex-Kent QEII bridge, covering at least ten miles of river with high population density on both sides, there is nothing else. Well almost nothing, another ancient tunnel that has only one narrow winding lane each way, and a single unreliable ferry. But this is obviously not enough, as each of these crossings is still at full capacity. Even the costly Dartford crossing. And that approach should solve the cost conundrum. There is so much pent-up demand that any new bridge would surely pay for itself, as much as any new road anywhere in the world possibly could. It is just madness to go ahead with the massive Thames Gateway housebuilding project unless there is a corresponding Thames Gateway infrastructure project.

Three disclaimers: I cross the river frequently; I accept marginal traffic charges; and did I mention that I like bridges?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

K K Konquered

There has apparently been a major election recently. You might have heard about it, it's been on the news. There is a new president on the block.

I used to live there, so I take more of an interest than much of the world. Yet I don't really have a strong opinion on this one. Without knowing the details, the new president seems a decent choice. It seems a good thing that the more internationalist more educated professional economist beat the more populist darling of the redneck community, though it was a very close race.

Yes, in Zambia, according to BBC news this week, Mr Rupiah Banda has been sworn in as president, just hours after officials said he had narrowly won Thursday's election.

Meanwhile, in America, at least, at last, there is hope.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Kitchen Space

The basic layout of the typical house has changed radically over the last couple of centuries in the western world, and over the last couple of decades in the developing east.

Take the kitchen. In the traditional English Victorian house this was way out the back, cold and unfurnished except for necessary appliances. In India, even in the new build of twenty years ago, the kitchen has even less prominence. While the living area could be elegant, light and spacious - the kitchen could be a cupboard space with barely enough opening for the smoke fumes.

Of course the reasons are obvious. The kitchen is used by the lower class, the cooks, the servants. Not for the real homeowners.

Things are changing today. When we bought our place five years ago, we chose one with a completely open plan ground floor. The kitchen is just an intrinsic part of the "living room."

Changing subject, look around your workplace. If the temporary workers are the ones sitting in the cold gloomy corners, if the engine room of your department is kept in the dark, what does that say about your organisation?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Light and Sound

Discussed at lunchtime today - the less controversial subject: I generally think people should keep their music to themselves, leakage from home or vehicle is just noise pollution.

Insight is sometimes simply finding a new relationship between old variables. So like Jessica Hagy with her Indexed cards:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Bond Villain

I mentioned it briefly in the old world. Now, as Quantum of Solace is about to hit the screens, five reasons why we should support the James Bond villain rather than James Bond himself.

1. They are more diverse. Not just upper class Englishmen. All sorts of strange foreigners. And we like diversity.

2. They give the opponent a chance. Could easily just shoot Bond in the head, instead always give him an opportunity. Bond just coldly eliminates.

3. They inspire loyalty from vast numbers of henchmen (and women). Must be doing something right.

4. Charisma and Style. Hard to define, particularly within my strict word limit. But possibly the clearest distinction of all, the chief villains have more of it than Bond.

5. They always end up losing. And we all root for the underdog.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Moronic Oxymoron

But let's not discuss Daylight Saving Time. Let's talk of cars and traffic ...

In some countries, particularly in the remnants of the British Empire, people drive on the left. In others, including most of continental Europe and America, people drive on the right. Which is better?

To answer the question, we need to consider the facts. Most people are right-handed. Old Roman tradition was to carry the shield with the left and the sword with the right. Most vehicles still have manual gear shifts. Most shift levers are towards the centre consoles of the vehicle. So I think the better answer can be determined. But there are many factors to consider, and arguments can be made for either side.

However, let's not have those arguments. Instead, every year, let's drive for six months on the left, then for six months on the right. Once in March and once in October we should swap everything round. That makes perfect sense.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Cheesy Break

Not my usual style of blog post, just a little incident from lunchtime yesterday:

On seeing menu item: Chilli Con Queso
Me: I like chilli, but I'll decline that one because it has cheese in it
Oz colleague: Oh, so that dish has cheese in it?
(I honestly didn't say anything at this point)
Serving lady: I don't know. (Then shouts across to kitchen area) Does this dish have cheese in it?
Answer from kitchen: No.
I gave up and went to the sandwich counter.

I still don't know if the kitchen staff were making some kind of joke there. And I mention this not to show that I know some Spanish, that was obvious, but only because after the conversation this person said "you're bound to write it up on your blog". I wasn't, but I've done it now. Back to serious stuff tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Not Meeting Project Deadlines

A few days ago I mentioned a top five ways of working to achieve project deadlines. They were all fairly common sense, all fairly predictable, all fairly practical, but not actually the most common ways suggested. Usually we hear:

1. You only need to work smarter, not harder.

2. Have you thought of ways of improving the process to achieve the same result?

3. Have you got a plan to achieve it?

4. That is the deadline, I don't need to know any more information or hear any more excuses.

5. Just F'ing Do It

But you know what, that's all bullshit. It is bullshit because it is all blatantly obvious, there is not a single practical suggestion to help achieve the deadline. If the manager only picks up and restates deadline dates, then the manager is an administrator not a leader. It's no good saying improve the process, it's only good to actually improve the process. If people working for a manager cannot achieve their deadlines, then the manager needs to make a decision. Priorities need to be altered or new directions given - then it is leadership not administration.

Monday, October 20, 2008

For better or for purse

Last week I dropped my wallet at a market in a notorious Essex town. Five things that were in there:

1. Credit Card - I've heard that all its details may already be on sale in pubs across the land, but it would still be disconcerting to lose it.

2. Driving Licence - we don't actually need to carry this in the UK, but it's habit from my US days, and some form of Photo Id often comes in useful

3. Oyster Card - loads of free travel on the London public transport system for the lucky finder.

4. Agency access pass for the client site - sounds trivial, but it's one of the things I'd "miss" the most in the short term while corporate bureaucracy grinds away at a replacement

5. AA card. I don't have a drink problem, and wouldn't spout that quasi-religious crap even if I did, but I do think it's worth keeping roadside breakdown membership.

That leaves out various loyalty cards, cash cards and cash itself (no coins) together with random receipts. They are not in my top five.

However, despite the best efforts of the Daily Hatemail (no street is safe, thieving immigrants are everywhere) and of the Real Hustle (trust nobody, they're all out to scam you), within a few seconds a lady walked up to me and returned it. Everything still there.

There is such a thing as society.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Editors

I was asked to provide an initial review of the first draft of a first novel. Am happy to do so and look forward to it.

However, when it comes to the editing of my own written work, my views correspond almost exactly with those of Giles Coren. Read them here, but be warned about the language.

If it appears as though I have forgotten the rules of English grammar, that I have split an infinitive or misplaced a gerund, then dammit I meant it. If I've used a word that is not in the dictionary or placed a common expression into an uncommon location, then sorry but that's just the way I speak - or to be more precise that's just the way I write. Though I do want to make things clear, concise and unambiguous, I don't feel a need to subscribe to Truss to achieve that. Yes there is a chance that I made a mistake - but most of the time, when you see a flagrant disregard for grammatical convention and standard English etiquette, then it was entirely deliberate.


For I do also have some sympathy with his subeditors.

Friday, October 17, 2008

One Bold Act to Solve the Financial Crisis

We appear to be on the brink of global economic meltdown. The government needs to be bold and decisive. One simple Act would have these major benefits:

1. Increase financial stability.

2. Increase innovation, entrepeneurial spirit and small business development.

3. Promote equal opportunity.

4. Increase charitable donations.

5. Reduce poverty.

I've mentioned it before. Simply raise inheritance tax to 100%.

1. The government needs to get closer to balancing its books. Living people don't like being taxed. Dead people don't care.

2. People will need to earn a living, even the children of successful rich entrepreneurs cannot just sit on their arses.

3. So who does not think that aiming for equal opportunity is a good thing?

4. Even Gates and Buffett agree. Charitable donations have always been tax-exempt.

5. Charities often tend to benefit the poor. And so do higher tax revenues.

I could add a potential surge in retail sales and consumer confidence too as people decide to spend for their families now while they are still alive. And a huge immediate boost for solicitors and will writers. But that's short term. I'm talking of one simple act to provide a long term radical overhaul to the entire national economy.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Meeting Project Deadlines

Following a comment on my note yesterday.

There are no panaceas, only checks and balances and choices, while we hope that management has enough experience and insight to choose appropriately. By the way, insight and lateral thinking to me are just the identification of hidden variables, but that's another subject.

Anyway, no miracles, but these are five genuine ways to achieve deadlines, all that I have actually experienced.

1. Have everyone work ridiculous hours. Not just long hours, stupid hours. Say 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. actually in the office every day. Including weekends. And not just at launch time, but for month after month after month. But it was Wall Street.

2. Rent more equipment. At the same office as above, the client had a splendid approach to hardware issues. PC not working or running too slowly? Phone IT support pointing out that you are losing thousands of dollars in productivity and potential lost trades … and within an hour you could get a completely brand new one set up and running at your desk.

3. Recruit more short term staff. In the early 1990's I worked on a big government project, and the deadline was completely immovable because of legislative commitments. But because the wider economy was struggling, no shortage of skilled resource elsewhere, so a constantly growing team.

4. Shiftwork. At a utility company, where it was hard to persuade people and unions to work extended hours, and there was not enough flexibility to hire more PCs and desks. So we had one set of developers working 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and another working from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Deliberately an hour of overlap for "handover" but that hour was chaos, remember not enough PCs and desks.

5. Compromise quality. I deliberately wrote that to sound harsh, but it is inevitable. Where you cannot grow the team or squeeze more out of the team or extend the deadline or change the specified deliverable, then "something" can usually be delivered on time, but that something will not match all of the prior expectations. Tough.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Outlook Rules

We have already had the Top Five Spreadsheet Rules and Top Five Powerpoint Rules, and today I received an email suggesting that there should be only five Outlook rules for managing your email.

However, as you should know, I don't put stuff up here without adding some personal slant to it, so I suggest the five rules could be re-written as a few simple words that Dovetail (Alliterate).

So, Five Rules for your Email InBox:
  1. Do (Action)
  2. Defer (Adjourn)
  3. Delegate (Allocate)
  4. Direct (Answer)
  5. Delete (Avoid)

All your email drops into one of those five categories. Empty Inbox. Clean Mind. But still a big old tasklist.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Financial Times

Compared to most people in the western world, here are five types of people who are so far almost unaffected by the credit crunch:

1. Self-sufficient smallholders

2. People with rich relatives or inherited wealth

3. People with secure jobs

4. People with final salary pension schemes

5. Lottery winners

None of those apply to me.

Compared to most people in the western world, I am so far almost unaffected by the credit crunch.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

My Most Embarrassing Moment

Celebrity interviews often ask that. I am no celebrity, but I do comment on the pathetic banality of celebrity interviews.

I was at a sports centre where we played five-a-side football. After the game I took off my kit and glasses, picked up my towel and stepped out of the changing room which had one door leading out to the shower area and another back out to the gym's reception. Obviously (because otherwise I would not be writing this) I stepped through the wrong door.

It's perfectly true, as a few colleagues from the football team and a slightly shocked receptionist can testify. But it was not really embarrassing, even at the time, it was just funny. However it is one of those anecdotes that is easy to regurgitate if ever asked to "reveal your most embarrassing moment".

Actually real embarrassment is when you simply say slightly the wrong thing in a social situation, the premise of the best British comedy of the decade. Real embarrassment is not when you make an honest mistake, it is when you do accidentally reveal a personal prejudice. But you don't admit to those.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Diversity (again)

I like it.

1. I like it that there are people like Sir David Attenborough who talk about the wonder of the natural world while casually throwing out metaphors such as "creatures perfectly designed for their environments".

2. I like it that there are people like Hemant Mehta who carefully prod the religions of the world, gently deconstructing outdated traditions with humour and civility.

3. I like it that there are people like AC Grayling who debate seriously with the pious, carefully dissecting their tired old ethical and moral arguments.

4. I like it that there are people like Richard Dawkins who respect religion enough to simply hold religious ideas to the same scrutiny and evaluation as any other transmitted ideas.

5. And I like it that there are people like Charlie Brooker who simply say that those who believe in superstitious nonsense are idiots or deluded fools.

That's diverse.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Powerpoint Rules

There is only one rule actually.

But first, my top five spreadsheet rules were noted here earlier, and I was going to follow with similar principles of Powerpoint design. However it looks like Seth Godin has just done it. He actually lists nine, but I'll quote five of them below (with some slight paraphrasing):

1. Keep it short. Ten minutes. The rest of your time should be answering questions raised in those ten minutes.

2. Do not let people to take notes. I don't mean tell them to stop writing, I mean they should come away with a crammed mind, not a crammed notebook.

3. Cut down the words. Words belong in memos (and blogs). Powerpoint is for one big picture.

4. Be clear what it is that you are selling. It might be an idea, or a budget, but it's still selling. If, at the end, I don't know what you're selling, you've failed.

5. Don't use Powerpoint at all. I do like to start with a clean whiteboard, then gradually build up a flowchart.

So I can simplify all those steps into just one rule. If the subject matter allows it, to cover your entire presentation, build precisely one slide. That's all.

Those are not just random blogwords, I actually try to follow that rule when presenting. Most of you do not.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Question to David Cameron (or John McCain)

Do you believe in meritocracy, that every child and every adult should have equal opportunity to make the most of their ability and work without discrimination


Do you believe that certain children and certain adults should have a privileged start in life, for example with the most productive and most valued resources allocated forever to the descendants of those who acquired them?

It's a very simple question. But those two options are exclusive. What do you choose?

(there is a third option, that everybody gets an equal share regardless of ability and work, but I don't expect any politician to ever suggest that)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Social Media in 33 words

Neil Perkin asks: I'd love to know in one sentence - what is your maxim for how best to engage and facilitate an online community?

Within 3 hours he had 17 responses from agency digital strategy leaders, media researchers, account planners, media owners, creatives, and some of the most renowned thinkers on social media strategy. But not from me.

And a slightly broader question, could I sum up the whole principle and regulation of online communities in just one sentence? Like this blog itself, the answer goes back to Common Sense:

"An online community is produced by our wants, and censorship of that community by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices."

That is an update of the very first published paragraph of Tom Paine in 1776. Still true today.

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.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Heavy Metal Medicine

A bit of extra traffic recently, a few new visitors, so a few random words about Rana. I like Nature. I like heavy metal. I like food. Naturally, I don't like heavy metal in food.

The words were not so random really, the Journal of the American Medical Association tested 230 Ayurvedic products - I hesitate to call them "medicines" because to use that word would surely have required controlled testing. Anyway about 20 per cent of the products had significant levels of lead, arsenic or mercury.

I have some sympathy with the local predicament. According to the LA Times: "the researchers and other experts surmised that the contamination had less to do with the manufacturing process than with the soils in which the herbs were grown." And around Bhopal at least, US corporations have contributed to toxification of a wide area.

But I have no sympathy for those who knowingly import and distribute poisons. Defending his products in the same paper: "Based on WHO standards, our products are perfect. They have not exceeded any limits." So said Kush Khanna (there's a Hindi joke in that name) who runs Bazaar of India in California.

The trouble is that WHO limits are 500 times greater than California limits.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Skeptic Games

With due credit to the Lay Scientist for setting up the games a month ago, the closing ceremony for the Skeptic Olympics brings together the finest performances of the last two weeks. Like a temporary traffic restriction, usual rules have been suspended for the event.

First up, winner of gold medal in the 100 meters, and unofficially declared the fastest human alive is the awesome Greta Christina. Out of the starting blocks and into my InBox in record time we have "The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions"

Then we have another big hitter. Winner of a gold medal in baseball is Holfordwatch with a must-read showing how even those nice chiropractors are joining the legal intimidation party instead of answering criticism. Then, like a modern day Jim Thorpe, Holfordwatch switches sports and wins another gold in the softball with thoughts on The Elmhurst Epidemic: classic example of the cultural and scientific clash between CAM and medicine.

Just behind Greta in speed of submission, the second fastest human alive and also picking up a gold in the relay, we have the Evolving Mind reminding us that "You Aren’t What You Eat" lucky that, or else I'd be a banana.

The two hundred meters is another pure event with a long established world record that held an almost mystical spell upon other competitors. But smashing through that ignorance we have a splendid tale of "pareidolia and anthropomorphism" so a well-deserved gold medal to Breaking Spells

Then we move on to the big hairy spinning beast. Gold medal in the hammer throw goes to Hyphoid Logic with the tale of the Bigfoot that wasn't. Not everyone can see it (something about Internet Explorer versions) but Hyphoid Logic also got a gold medal in the rifle event. An easy target but a fine shot with a heady mix of prayer, blasphemy and gas prices.

The high jump is one of the original olympic sports and a very pure event, it is amusing to see who can drop from highest onto those jokers at Answers in Genesis. Winner of the gold medal is the legendary Bing McGhandi at Happy Jihad House of Pancakes who easily cleared the immense white cliffs of Dover.

Next up we have the javelin. As with dismissing the arguments of the anti-vaccination brigade, this is an ancient and honorable sport. Gold medal winner goes to Elvis Sightings with a Queasy Comparison.

For the ultimate all-round athlete we need to look to the decathlon. Winner of the gold medal is the mighty Skeptico with Negative Energy Research showing that we all have supernatural powers. Even you. Yes the professional skeptic is as psychic as the professional psychic.

Fastest across the water, winner of the 50m freestyle swim was Daylight Atheism who simply drove across the pool with Run Your Car on Water. Coming last was this odd chap who thought he could walk across but he sadly drowned in the attempt to prove it.

Gold medal winner of the high dive competition is the unsinkable rubber duck, a fairly obvious dive winner really. Collecting the award is Skelliot who uses his podium position to plug Australian Science Week.

Admittedly based on the judge's subjective opinion, but I'm the subjective judge here, winner of the gymnastic floor event is HumbugOnline looking at the obvious techniques of the self-help-merchants with SHAM Fallacies.

Now a difficult sport, attempted only by the brave few. Taking on Michael Shermer and the Drake Equation in Greco-Roman Wrestling, a sport that is as old as civilisation itself, we have aardvachaelogy, and Martin wins gold with a knockout blow … even skeptic heroes sometimes need to be corrected.

Over at the showjumping arena, men and women compete on a level playing field, as level as the horses allow anyway. Podblack Cat wins easily with a Winter Of Research And Retention, Gender, Sex And Science - a big subject but a big performance.

Cycling is a sport that has a long history of accusations of drug use, so it's appropriate that a doctor should win gold here. PalMD explains why Doctors Aren't Preachers.

Not originally part of the games, but quite possibly my favourite event, we have beach volleyball (sorry, gratuitous link). It's bright and colourful and entertaining, and the Primordial Blog wins gold for due skepticism about the end of the world.

And of course the epitome of the olympics, the big showpiece event, the ultimate test of endurance, that has to be the marathon. The gold medal goes to the expected winner, Orac shows a clean pair of heels to those who claim his writing is funded by "big pharma" with a detailed exposition of when clinical trials are designed by marketing.

That only leaves the closing ceremony. No graphics on this site, so see Cectic for great skeptic entertainment and a few fireworks.

So now, at the end, the torch passes on to the Skeptic Dictionary. He sums up what these games are really about, the common sense in skepticism. This is Ancient Wisdom, where magic meets science. To take part send your next skeptical submission to SC95 at SKEPDIC.COM before 9/11, you know it makes sense.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Holiday Coast

No recent posts. Went on holiday to the coast for the English long weekend. Well, when I say "the coast" it's fairly loose terminology.

Imagine we live in mid New Jersey and rarely travel north. And I suggest to the holiday rep to book a place in Long Island, that's the place we want to be. But it's peak season, so unsurprisingly I get called back with the message that there were no vacancies at the obvious places there. So I say "ok then, at least get somewhere in New York".

We got a place in Albany.

Of course counties in England tend to be a lot smaller than states in America so the distances involved weren't quite so bad, but the basic relational geography stands. Sometimes we need to be clearer with our directions.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faster Higher Stronger

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

Note that it does not say "Faster, Higher, Stronger, X"

where X is "scored higher by judges for those they think looked most elegant while prancing around the arena"

Also, it's not "who has the most money". The UK has invested heavily in cycling, bikes that cost thousands and velodromes that cost millions. And it has reaped many rewards. But in addition to Pursuit and Sprint and Madison and Keirin, if there was an olympic cycling competition to determine who could carry the most family members on a single iron bike while navigating heavy traffic on potholed roads, I think the developing world would stand more of a chance.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Six and Out in Melbourne and London

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.

That's today's quote from Google. One thing about George Orwell, he certainly had courage.

It's not only the likes of Sherry Jones and Taslima Nasreen who have shown courage. Scott Adams gets it too. But it would be too easy to just relate tales of Jon Swift and Lenny Bruce and Monty Python and a long history of comic subversion. Let's turn to cricket instead. There are many lessons for life in The Art of Captaincy and Opening Up, but most autobiographies are dross. And in CricInfo yesterday we are back to Orwell:

Upon hearing of the bugs squashed on the wallpaper of the hotel opposite his, young kitchen hand George Orwell did not beseech the bugs to write his book for him. Down and Out in Paris and London is no less grisly or educational a read for the lack of bugs' insights. Yet in cricket we see the bugs everywhere, furnishing us with their bug's-eye perspectives, and not just any old bugs but former top-level bugs.

But those "bugs" that Christian Ryan refers to are some serious big names in the world of cricket. So there goes his chance of getting any exclusive interviews with them. That was brave too.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Buying Gold

Why does India win so few Olympic medals? So asked Marginal Revolution and a billion Indians.

Firstly, congratulations to Abhinav Bindra for winning India's first ever individual gold. But looked at in the national medal tables , we are slightly behind Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In fact, on a per capita count, scaled to population, we would do even worse.

Not everyone dares to suggest genetic factors. I do. But these factors primarily apply to average performance in particular pure athletic disciplines. There surely must be some events where focus and investment and dedication can bring results, even with a largely fixed genetic pool. The enormous strides made by China, and even by the UK, since the last games prove this.

The usual glib answer is "get cricket into the games". That's only partially true, even if India's most popular sport were to be included, presumably in one-day format, there's still a good chance we'd be beaten by Australia (or Sri Lanka, like today).

There are better candidates, more guaranteed to get us a medal. Billiards. Chess. Kabaddi. And with enough "pressure" any sport can be included in the games. And by "pressure" perhaps we just mean money. According to a BBC investigation: if you are careful enough and clever enough and you really want the golden Olympic ticket for your sport, there is every reason to believe that you can get your event onto the podium.

Yet I still ask, given a developing nation's other priorities, is it worth it?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Restaurant Tips

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difficulty of finding a restaurant that does not have prices on the menu. Yet though I perhaps came from a more extreme angle, taking a famine-based twist to asking for more, I nevertheless believed that many others would share my opinion there, surely it is simply better to go for a meal if you know the complete price up front. Yet sadly not a single suggestion.

But though I expected to share common opinion on food prices, I think my opinion might be more individual on waiter tips. I mention it now because both Marginal Revolution and Freakonomics have raised the subject just in the few days since my note. One obvious idea is that the price of the meal should explicitly include service and the waiting staff should earn decent wages without relying on the whims of fickle customers. The same as shop sales staff. That's a common suggestion anyway. Many restaurants routinely add 15% to the bill as standard. But that is not the best way to relate how much value was added by the waiter.

As a slightly more original idea, I suggest that you could tip a standard hourly figure, for example minimum wage rate, or some fraction of it per customer. If the waiter is supplying x tables, then she will get at least x times minimum wage. Plus any basic salary. It reflects the time that she actually spent "working for you", the current practice of food bill plus 15 percent means that she is compensated less for delivering many bargain courses than for delivering a single overpriced bottle. Perhaps more importantly, the new suggestion means that a waiter in a cheap-food restaurant does not get paid less than a waiter in an expensive-food restaurant for exactly the same level of service.

I'm not saying that's what I do, I'm only suggesting that's what we could do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Skeptic, Moi?

There is no explicit religious or political branding on this site, but for a taste of my views on those areas, the links to the left might give you a taste. But my self-imposed post word limit precludes detailed analysis here. So I don't usually suggest skepticism about the claims of astrologers or religious leaders or faith healers. Sorry. I usually suggest ridicule and derision.

However there does need to be a place for more considered reasoning of those claims, and one place is the skeptics' circle. I've mentioned it before here. Guidelines for posting are here. And if you want a place in the next edition, due August 28th, write to me here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Ministry of Silly Games

The Olympics continue to ask plenty of questions for our brave athletes. As always, Monty Python continues to provide answers.

I understand the point of a competition to determine who can run the fastest or jump the highest or swim the fastest - but the ministry of silly games has decided that just seeing who is quickest across water from one bank to the other does not give enough scope for lanky Americans to pile up the medals. So we have backstroke and breaststroke and butterflystroke and sidestroke and sunstroke and heatstroke.

But this is unfair on athletics, the original olympic sport. We have various distances but only two basic kinds of track race, "freestyle" and "silly walk". There needs to be another race where you run backwards. Another race where you run with your legs splayed out to the side. Another race where you run, in honour of John Cleese, in full "goose-step" style and you are disqualified unless your leg stays perfecty straight reaching up at least to shoulder height on each step.

That's what they do in the pool. Alternatively, ditch the silly walks and return to olympic ideals.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Top Five Spreadsheet Rules

Remember this quote from Hal Varian: So what’s getting ubiquitous and cheap? Data. And what is complementary to data? Analysis.

And some of my earliest words on this site: It is true. I like collecting data. I have epic spreadsheets full of data.

Then much more recently I said my guiding principles of spreadsheet design to follow shortly, so as you'd expect, here's a top five:

  1. No bitmaps. No logos. No extra graphics whatsoever. The spreadsheet should look nice, of course, but it should look nice because of the clarity and elegance of the information presented within it.

  2. No extra colours, lines, shades, formats. Less strictly observed than the rule above, but a rule nonetheless. Of course there should be colours, lines, shades - plenty of them, as many as needed - but it should all be there only to segment and highlight the areas that need it. There should not be "extra" formatting.

  3. No macros. Obviously, because they could harbour viruses. Less obviously, because they are hidden, because they need to be applied separately. Everything in the spreadsheet should be open and clear. I have all sorts of complicated functions and formulas in my spreadsheets, but they are explicitly within visible cells, not within macros.

  4. No hidden sheets, no hidden columns, no hidden formulas. Clearly I am not trying to protect something sold as a commercial application, I am talking about those spreadsheets that we all develop and distribute on a daily basis. By allowing "anyone" to pick up and enhance and improve your work, everyone benefits. Like open source principles on a closed source product.

  5. Everything above suggests that it is the data that is critical, not the fluff around it. So get the numbers right. That's the most important rule of all.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I am rich

I don't have an iPhone. But I do appreciate its features. And I do like the idea of this iPhone application.

It was "developed" by someone called Armin Heinrich and it costs a thousand dollars and it does nothing. Or to be more precise, it does nothing except display a little red ruby icon that "reminds you (and others when you show it to them) that you were able to afford this"

Classic. The application is called "I am rich" although some would call it "I am something else"

Unfortunately Marginal Revolution reports that "it has since been removed from the App Store".

I agree with Kottke that this removal is odd. Anyway, before you laugh at the people who bought it, take a look at the designer label that is so prominent on your shirt or handbag ...