Thursday, January 31, 2008


At lunch today the subject turned to food. The rice was undercooked, but that was just normal for the client office restaurant. But I was reminded of two basic marketing areas, and another one has just occurred to me now.

1. Brand value:

One person commented that he had eaten a particular brand of pie only once and had fallen spectacularly ill immediately afterwards. He had never touched that brand again. Now that brand is well-known and respected, and I would have thought that if you must have a pie, then at least choose a well-branded product. But first impressions count and the guy's reaction was perfectly understandable.

2. Product Currency:

A second person at the table recently got married. Between the reception last Saturday and the vultures in the office, we have polished off most of the wedding cake. However, pre-deep-freeze tradition dictates that a piece of cake is saved for a year. But I really don't think a year-old cake would be too healthy.

Yet sometimes the "maturing" of a dish is what provides its special flavour. We can create a new more valuable product in the eyes of the consumer by appealing to grounds of tradition and maturity, regardless of its intrinsic value.

3. Lying in advertising:

And coincidentally Bill Poser at Language Log brought up exactly the same subject only yesterday. He provides an excellent analysis of how deteriorating food sometimes becomes valuable delicacy. He started his analysis with a recipe printed in the New York Times, the dish was called "Olla Podrida", that means "Rotten Pot", the etyomology has been verified.

Yet the author of the Times article admits: she and her consultants and editors were aware of the correct name and etymology but thought that some readers might be put off by the notion of rotten food, so they changed the name a little and made up a fake etymology.

So the restaurant owner is quoted as saying: "Olla means pot, and the original name was olla poderida, which comes from poder, which means strength"

But if the newspaper editors were the people who changed the name, then how did the restaurant owner who sourced the dish provide that quotation?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How many people will select the same option as you?

The slashdots site had a recent "survey" that prompted a lot of discussion. I won't try to collect your response here, that would count as one of those reading "interruptions" that I try to avoid, but it had just one simple question in it:

How many people will select the same option as you?
  • 0%
  • 1-25%
  • 26-50%
  • 51-75%
  • 76-99%
  • 100%
It looks very obvious. Cognitive Daily summed up the basic proposition:

At first pass, you might figure that there are 6 possible responses, so if people respond randomly then about 16 percent will choose each answer, so the correct response would be 1-25 percent. But of course, if everyone used that same logic, then many more than 25 percent of respondents would choose that answer. The next logical response would be to move on to 26-50 percent. But once again, if everyone used that logic, the correct response would be higher still.

Very sensible analysis. If over-analysed then it might seem paradoxical. But basically common sense. I do have one further point, for as with my dislike of interruptive multimedia, another blog rule is that I do not just post stuff without adding an original thought. Incidentally, I guessed correctly. Even more incidentally, I work in marketing.

In marketing, we cannot stock every alternative, so we regularly have to predict the "most popular option". Of course that is not necessarily the option that we personally would choose, despite overblown arguments for "you must have personal experience of what you are selling".

For we try to predict the option that the consumer will choose, but that is not necessarily the option that the consumer should choose. We also need to account for the influence of other people's selections upon that choice. We need to guess the proportion of people who will behave rationally, the proportions who will act in isolation or in collusion. We should determine the evolving Nash equilibria. We should resolve the prisoner's dilemma.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The King of Paine

Today, while the impoverished Indian sub-continent is taking steps to catch up with the modern world, even supposedly enlightened nations such as the United Kingdom are still trying to justify and encourage the caste system. I had thought a convincing argument for rejecting it was published way back in the 18th Century - that book was called Common Sense.

Today religious fundamentalists are still trying to justify selected brands of fascism by claiming that their policies have been inspired by divine revelations. I had thought a convincing argument for rejecting it was published way back in the 18th Century - that book was called The Age of Reason.

Just a couple of days I dropped in a comment that skyscrapers divide people, bridges connect people. Thomas Paine (b. 29 January 1727, d. 8 June 1809) wanted to build bridges. "Society in every state is a blessing, but government even its best state is but a necessary evil". Happy Birthday Tom.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Hippo Suits

A couple of days ago I mentioned the hippo in a metaphorical sense. Today I talk about the real thing, the species of animal that kills more people in Africa than any other. And time to go back to Zambia…

The Times yesterday had a feature on a man who traveled out there to get really close to the animals in order to collect samples of sweat for scientific analysis. The article links through to a video of him. It is quite preposterous.

The guy sounds like a Jackass. I don't actually mean that pejoratively, I mean he sounds like one of those guys from the TV show who deliberately put themselves into the most uncomfortable, painful, dangerous and scatological positions simply because they enjoy it. Absolutely fair enough, entertainment for the rest of us, no problem with that at all.

But this guy justified the need to get his expensive kicks for scientific research. That justification is hippodung. It is worth going to the Luangwa valley to study wild animal behaviour. But it is not worth investing the resources of the Smithsonian Institute and countless airmiles to collect some hipposweat - get that at your local zoo.

After all his cost and effort, the "researcher" did get his African adventure holiday and his tailormade armoured suit. But he did not get his sample. I'm not surprised, he wants to go back for more.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

High Five

The advantage of finally mentioning High Fidelity is that it allows you to take the easy option of dropping in a personal top five list, anyone who remembers either the book or the film will understand.

So here we have, in no particular order, a top five of very predictable childhood dream jobs:

1. Professional footballer. I wouldn't need to be paid Premiership wages, but being paid anything to do what for most people is an expensive hobby would be marvellous. Methinks the chance has passed me by.

2. Lead guitarist. I didn't want to be the singer, but I did want to write the songs. Of course I can't actually play anything now.

3. Architect. Not of databases and system processes, as I did end up anyway, but of real structures. And not of tall buildings, like pseudo-macho how-high-can-you-go modernists, but of bridges, like Tom Paine did after inspiring US independence. Skyscrapers divide people. Bridges connect people.

4. Pilot of Thunderbird Two. A very noble dream. Not only would I be saving the world from potential disaster as part of my job, I would also get to play with the biggest most fantastic toys in the world.

5. Cartoon superhero.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

High Fidelity to Sweeney Todd

Weekend break from serious economics to popular culture. The flagship BBC "movie" programme Film 2008 was repeated this afternoon. Much of the show focused on this week's big release, a dark musical epic about Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The film review is for other times or other blogs, today I just comment on something unusual about the promotional activity on the show. Quite rightly, the focus was on the director - whatever the source material, he imprints his own personal inimitable style upon the creation. And wherever he pushes his visions, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are often not far away, so they were interviewed too. Generally actors need to be paid well to say loyal to their directors, but you feel that those two would do almost anything for Tim Burton.

But what surprised me is that they only mentioned in passing the character playing Adolfo Pirelli. I just caught that it was someone called Sacha Baron-Cohen, then I realised that he is the guy responsible for Ali G and Borat. Given his fame and profile, I would have thought that his participation would be a big story. It was not, and I hope that the reason for that is a perfectly justified focus on the main creative talent rather than the local star.

Yet I wonder if the omission was deliberate. Perhaps Sacha did not want to get involved with the promotion, perhaps he only feels comfortable in public while "in character", though I am fairly sure his name remains in the picture. But it could be something else. You sometimes hear of actors being "uncredited" in roles, but usually that is where the finished movie is a disastrous mess and the actor wants nothing to do with the fiasco. But for films that are both critically acclaimed and also financially successful, you wonder why they disown the work in those circumstances.

The example that still puzzles me is that of Catherine Zeta Jones. High Fidelity is one of my favourite books, and she was typically stunning in the film adaptation. But she was completely uncredited in it. Why?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Animal Magic

For anyone who read yesterday's post who was a kid in England in the 1970s, it might be possible to think that I was referring to the guy who presented animal behaviour from Bristol Zoo every week on children's television. There are many similarities, but one fundamental difference.

Both characters had an infectious love of wildlife in all its forms. Both had long and varied careers across the mass media of the twentieth century. Both presented television programmes that showed nature at its most basic level - great popularisation to some, dumbing down to others.

However, the fundamental thesis presented by Desmond Morris was that people behave like other animals. The fundamental thesis presented by Johnny Morris was that other animals behave like people. Both arguments have elements of truth. But anthropomorphism of other animals has less relevance to economic policy than zoomorphism of other humans.

Or to put it another way, dubbing an elephant with a silly voice may be very funny but it is not very educational.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Animal Management

A few days, in an oblique reference to our overcrowded island, I thanked the author of The Human Zoo. He was born eighty years ago today. As a populariser of science, someone who brought the immense timescale of evolution down to simple schoolboy comprehension, Desmond Morris was a giant of the twentieth century.

He has immense detailed knowledge and scientific qualifications, he even studied under the genius Niko Tinbergen and published nearly fifty scientific papers. However in his popular books he sometimes oversimplified his arguments with the broad brush strokes of a trained artist. Some of those arguments have been refined and adopted into today's acknowledged facts, others are still contentious to this day. But his single basic point was blindingly obvious yet fundamentally enlightening - if we accept that human beings are animals, then much is explained.

After a few years of engineering, I studied economics and management at college. And I still remember sitting in lectures about management theory, some of it based on serious psychology experiments, some of it based on solid economic statistics, and some of it just the buzzword bullspeak that still resounds today. Normally I read the recommended books and did the recommended work. But one time, and it was just the once, in a graded essay about the definition of an organisation, where I was expected to discuss leadership concepts of "common goals and shared consciousness" (I can't believe I even vaguely remember that), I dropped in a line that said that we should also explore how some ideas from the Naked Ape could help to define and explain organisational behaviour.

That line got a big red question mark next to it. My university was fairly unusual in facilitating cross-disciplinary migration, we were encouraged to drop into lectures in totally different departments if we found interest there, but my idea did not come from any lecture. To credit my tutor, he did not completely rule out my suggestion, but he strongly emphasised that if I wanted to make such points in future then I should back them up with proper academic references instead of popular paperbacks.

But I stuck to books from the management library for the rest of the course, and indeed through my career. Meanwhile Dr Morris has continued to educate and entertain on the page and on the screen while I see his ideas validated everywhere. Happy birthday Desmond.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Dark Night

The star of A Knight's Tale had just finished filming a new Batman movie in which he plays The Joker, surely the ultimate scary clown. He died young.

Many blogs seem to have a periodic "random factoid", often once per week. Today, in this link, something horrific ...

But in a blog as holistic as this, nothing published is really random. My last four posts:

One day ago: I used to live in Zambia
Two days ago: Some African animals are in trouble
Three days ago: I no longer fear clowns
Four days ago: "39"

Factoid: The average life expectancy in Zambia is 38 years for men and 37 years for women.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


As mentioned before on this blog, I enjoy playing football. We played after work today. We missed a few open goals and also gave away a dubious penalty. Their keeper had a blinder. We lost by one goal. I thought our team was unlucky today.

I also enjoy watching football. This evening I had a choice of viewing - Tottenham were playing Arsenal in the Coca-Cola semi-final, but instead I chose to watch Zambia play Sudan. Why?

While at primary school, I supported Liverpool, enough to have LFC mugs and souvenirs, posters of the team on my wall, even a club logo sewn onto my shirt. Some other time I will explain the attraction of the beautiful game. But today I no longer support Liverpool.

One reason that I stopped supporting any particular club was that we moved around a lot, I never really had a local, and spent many of my secondary school years living in Zambia.

According to the BBC Guide to the African Nations Cup: Zambian coach Ben Bamfuchile, who engineered Namibia's shock qualification, died last month. The country also lost 12 supporters in June during a stampede that followed a qualifying win over Congo. Two months later, international Chaswe Nsofa died of a heart attack while training with his Israeli club. The 27-year-old, who scored in the 2006 Cosafa Cup final as Zambia won the Southern African tournament, was a key player.

And some fans of international football are not even aware that he was part of a new generation of talent. Just 15 years ago, the plane carrying the National Football Team home from a World Cup qualifier crashed into the Atlantic. Not a single player or official survived the crash.

Our team was not unlucky today.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hippos and Cheetahs

Having spent part of my childhood growing up in Africa, I will always have a special affection for the continent. I will not mention the African Nations Cup that started in Ghana yesterday. But I will mention a widely distributed lecture by the Ghanaian economist George Ayittey that I saw at Greg Laden's site. The talk seems to have drawn great reviews from most people, but I have both a trivial and a serious disagreement with it - simple evolutionary principles explain both.

The minor disagreement regards the economist's choice of analogy. The headline of the piece is Hippos and Cheetahs, and the speaker pushes the basic theme that many African nations that gained independence in the latter half of the twentieth century have behaved like the slow lumbering hippo whereas they need to behave like the modern dynamic cheetah. That sounds unquestionable.

But cheetahs are not modern. And cheetahs are not doing so well. There are only small numbers left in the wild. Despite their great speed, they are able to kill only a few specific kinds of small antelope. Even when they manage to catch one, they are easily chased off the kill by lions or hyenas or packs of wild dogs, and these other animals have a much broader range of diet anyway. Basically, the most successful genes are not necessarily located in the fastest animals but in the most adaptable. In the long run, adaptability is key to success.

That was trivial. My major disagreement is about the ferocity of attack upon the "post-colonial" economic systems of the newly independent states. The speaker lamented the lack of economic progress and was angry about "swiss bank socialism" where much of the wealth of the continent was expatriated to Europe. This was a justified argument, but the speech then degenerated into a generic attack on any form of socialism or market restrictions.

But hold on a minute George, the theft of Africa's resources is not a "post-colonial" issue - the expatriation of wealth was surely even more significant when much of Africa was ruled by European states? The real issue that he touches upon (without considering the implication) is the immense centralisation of power and resources in very few people. So in a land where much of the population is still hovering around the border between poverty and famine, there may still be a case for actively seeking wealth redistribution as well as economic freedom. You cannot separate the economic from the political. We cannot just transfer limited resources from an unelected dictator to an unelected monopoly. Economic freedom needs to evolve at the same time as economic controls.

After all, hippos may well survive and prosper for much longer than cheetahs.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


It's still weekend, so before serious economics tomorrow, another personal diversion. I don't really have a fear of clowns. Many do. But I did have a fear of one particular clown. He goes by the name of Andrew Symonds.

Of course I am not trying to start another monkey trial - I really do not want to restart the row that flared up after the last test match. But being called a clown is different - Symonds deliberately paints his face with sunblock into a strange pattern that looks clown-like to me.

But the reason that we feared him was not for his ridiculous makeup but simply because of his phenomenal talent. He is the Freddie Flintoff of the Australian cricket team, arguably the most destructive batsman, the best slip catcher, the best outfielder, and in his own style possibly their most effective bowler. In Sydney last week he nearly won the match on his own.

But something big happened down under overnight. No innuendo please. I woke up on birthday morning to hear that the invincible Aussie team, Symonds included, had finally been beaten for the first time in many years and at Perth for the first time in many eons. And so we no longer fear the clown.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Thirty Nine

It is a big day, so please forgive a short personal diversion. My excuse is that today is the half-birthday of a true inspiration, definitely my favourite guitarist and quite probably my favourite musician of all time. Of course I refer to Dr Brian May.

According to the editor of the rocksnobs website, quoting his exact words including the original emphasis: "Always and forever, my favorite Brian May composition is '39. As far as A Night At The Opera goes, '39 is the sparkling jewel."

Exactly my sentiment. It is certainly my favourite track on the album too. Yet it is a statement of surprising contrariness when you remember that a little tune called Bohemian Rhapsody is also on there.

It is often difficult to explain why any particular song has special meaning to any particular person. This really is a case of art rather than science. Most of the music in '39 is a simple folk skiffle, but there is a magnificent soaring time-shifting instrumental in the centre of it that really makes it special.

Matching the melody, the lyrics are simple and heartfelt too. The BBC H2G2 site has a rather childish oversimplification of them, but on this one day of the year when I forsake marketing analysis for personal indulgence, allow me to finish by quoting the traveller from the song: Oh so many years have gone, though I'm older than a year. For my life still ahead, pity me.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bookdroplifting Revelations

I referred earlier to the phenomenal talents that can be hidden away developing software when sometimes these people have more vision, more creativity, and perhaps even better writing style than so many currently published authors. Another day I will explain my theory for the reasons that they stay and succeed in technology. But today just another eulogy to their genius.

The wasted Mark Abbott and the driven Stephen Lees were continuing a tradition started by the late great Paul Coombs, instigator of the cryptic creative epics that still confound that consultancy at the end of each year and author of well-respected guides to IT Project Estimation and IT Project Proposals.

Paul also wrote a novel. He described Revelations as "a cyber-novel packed with adventure, romance, jokes, brain-busting philosophy...". However all he got from every major publisher was a pre-printed rejection slip saying something along the lines of "we have read and enjoyed the book, but unfortunately did not feel it was worthy of publication".

I do not have the vested interest of the next Harry Potter hidden up my sleeve, but what is pathetic about those publishers is that they lied. Yes, that is a strong word, but various studies have shown that the publishers have neither the time nor inclination to read unsolicited manuscripts, fair enough, but they should just admit that. Though it would be a sorry state if new talent is forever stifled by this process. Paul paints an eloquent picture of a world where none of the biggest players in the industry actually ever read books, they just talk about them.

However he was not prepared to see his work disappear without a fight. So with typical tenacity and creativity, he instigated a process of "droplifting". That is the opposite of shoplifting. He invested his own money to get an ISBN and got a few hundred copies of his book privately printed and bound, then strategically left them in carefully selected bookshops. As each copy was in pristine condition and had a valid barcode, some were presumably rung up as normal by the shop assistants by the time that Paul went back to check a few weeks later. He hoped that word of mouth would gradually spread news of the novel, but sadly he did not live to see it.

However, somewhere at a store near you, his revelations may still survive.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


You could be amazed by the vastness and beauty of the universe, and wish to explore it further. You may think it wonderful that we can predict the development and motion of both immense and miniscule bodies with simple heretical scientific rules. You may also think that observation and measurement of systems may give us lessons to be learned about the history and future of life itself. Your predictions may be conservative or radical, but they are verified or rejected depending upon the evidence.

Or you could think the particular revelation of a particular being will individually affect the future of humanity in ways that only the spiritually chosen can understand. You live your current existence as though it were some sort of test for an imagined future existence. You dismiss statistics and genetics that you cannot comprehend by calling them part of a higher plan. Your revealed predictions are either worthless platitudes or simply wrong. You are aware that the cognitive system of the human mind looks for patterns that can be matched to known objects, but your endless search for supernatural guidance means that you attribute spiritual meaning to these patterns.

Combining the two makes as much sense as Astrolomy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The fine art of marketing

I work in marketing. But as with psychology, is it art or is it science?

Marketing is not about award-winning advertising or sophisticated value propositions or refinement of sales techniques. It is not about "the creation of something original and beautiful", although that should be a required by-product. It is the creation of something effective. And it is only effective if we can measure the results.

A few years I worked with a great character at a nearby client site. Although very creative and nominally a business marketing guru, he was extremely capable of delving into technical detail, for example to verify suspected anomalies in reports. However he was also perfectly aware of the time and effort required to get the precise answers, and the consequent practical necessity of making broad yet inaccurate estimates instead. And he would often justify his approximations with the same phrase: "this is an art not a science".

I completely understand his sentiment. I fight the same questions every single working day. But marketing is not art. It is just that we rarely have sufficient time, resource, skills or commitment to do the required scientific measurement and to properly evaluate its effectiveness. But marketing is science.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


As I mentioned before, my drive to work spans the BBC thought for the day, which instead of being a genuine alternative viewpoint on the day's news is usually just a short snatch of religious dogma. And today the speaker gave a short lecture on organ donation.

There are victims who are suffering and dying every day because of a lack of sufficient people who are willing to donate organs after they die. Some members of parliament have proposed that we amend the process from the current "opt-in" system to an "opt-out" system - so you would still be allowed to insist that essential organs should not be removed from your dead body, but that denial option would no longer be presumed as it is today.

But instead of using his privileged slot to argue for the benefit of real diverse people instead of for the benefit of imaginary christian souls, the speaker blathered about "both sides being right" and came down with the recommendation that the opt-in process should stay. Pathetic.

Recently posted on the web was the obituary of a soldier who just died in Iraq. Interestingly, the obituary was self-penned, the soldier kept a blog, but had requested that one post be held back until after his death. But I think that things should be said while you are alive to hear the response to them.

I don't even know if I have a donor card. But when I am gone, do whatever you like with my body. Cut it, burn it, sell it, whatever. Please just wait until I'm dead first.

Monday, January 14, 2008


There is no such word.

You could be amazed by the vastness and beauty of the universe, and wish to explore it further. You may think it wonderful that we can predict the development and motion of immense celestial bodies with simple heretical scientific rules. You may also think that observation and measurement of other systems may give us lessons to be learned about the very earliest steps in the evolution of stars, planets, and of life itself. Your predictions may be conservative or radical, but they are verified or rejected depending upon the evidence.

Or you could be so narrow minded as to think that the relative visual positions and brightness of stars and comets as seen from a small backwater planet will individually affect specific human beings in ways that only higher powers can understand. You are aware that the visual recognition system of the human mind looks for patterns that can be matched to known objects, but your desperate search for supernatural guidance means that you attribute personal meaning to these patterns. You cannot see massive black holes and dark matter so you dismiss them from your charts. Your predictions are either worthless platitudes or simply wrong.

The words do not mix. The worlds do not mix. You choose one or the other.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

School Ties

This is unusual, but almost a short "this is what I did today" post. Perhaps it is justified because the last two posts have been comparatively lengthy pieces about the tenuous nature of measurable marketing (about which I could write books), and also because at the lunch today I promised to provide some "publicity".

The lunch followed an informal alumni meeting. And I heard that Woodstock School appears to be having some trouble with recruiting and retaining staff, and also with attracting students from its traditional sources. I am sure it could get more than enough students if it just filled the intake with all the newly minted from India's growing middle class, but that would dilute the well balanced diversity that was so prominent twenty years ago.

I have neither the space nor the authority to provide details here, but there are various programs available to allow high school kids from Europe and America to spend an exchange year in the Himalayan foothills, and equally there may be contracts available for qualified teachers willing to spend some time there.

This is the official school website. I should confess that I disagree with the stated christian ethos, but other than a request to "bow your heads" for a few minutes after assembly while the principal waffled a prayer, I did not find that religion was forced upon me. Back to the brave new world of proper marketing tomorrow.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Consumer driven sales Ikea style

An article in today's Financial Times connected the new consumer driven internet with a big blue and yellow Swedish furniture store. As the thing that connected them was alleged to be web 2.0 and the new world of consumer driven marketing, and as that is the core of my work, and as I despise the Ikea sales model, this note was inevitable.

Ikea is great at marketing. The vision that they sell is one that the FT suggested was like the consumer driven web because they provide a user-defined flexibility and customisation that is very different from the old model of the store. They make the buyer do the work in order to provide a richer more flexible more tailored shopping experience.

But the reality is not so great. Ikea does make customers do much of the "sales" work, that much is true, but they actually sell very narrowly defined visions. They are encouraging particular designs, colour schemes and combinations - as the show rooms that line the tortuous paths through the store will demonstrate to anyone. The store is the antithesis of Google, it is deliberately slow and awkward to find a specific product quickly. Even the catalogues promote particular cohesive styles - selected sofas, shelves, rugs etc together form a specific "dream" to which specific target groups will aspire - they do not give quick answers to consumer questions.

I'd suggest that small niche suppliers (or even Argos) are closer to the pure web 2.0 business model and are much closer to the Peppers ideals for consumer driven marketing. The new world was supposed to provide more choice, more vision, more speed and more convenience than the old world. Ikea makes decisions easy for those who lack imagination while complicating the sale for those who lack time.

But the Ikea marketing sells the dream not the reality. I hate it. But it is genius.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Interactive Marketing and Patient Choice

When we prepare direct marketing, in order to enable calculations of incrementality and return on investment, we often use the principle of a control group - that is a randomly selected sample of the population chosen using exactly the same criteria as used in the main selection. However as targeting improves then target populations get smaller, and then the control group can become statistically insignificant. It is a significant problem.

There are various statistical methods that can help to estimate result reliability more accurately, from simple chi-square tests to complex Fisher analysis. Every day we need to make decisions about balancing the time and effort required for further predictive analysis with the expected impact on statistical result validity and campaign execution timescales.

Sometimes these same issues crop up in far more critical arenas than in the marketing of optional consumer goods. I have suggested that you are more likely to die in a hospital than anywhere else. I still suggest that the marketing of patient choice is over-hyped.

I recently learned of research published in an American medical journal that compared mortality rates in different hospitals. The article looked at very similar operations, and questioned whether those hospitals with a zero mortality rate did better than those with a non-zero mortality rate. Even just judged on that single measure, the subsequent evidence concluded that hospitals with a history of zero mortality subsequently experience mortality rates that are the same or higher than those of other hospitals. Yes, choose a hospital with historically zero mortality and you are more likely to die there.

This is relevant to public health policy in England too. There is regular shouting for more patient choice, particularly by the main political opposition party, but the usefulness of those choices needs to be considered in the light of this kind of statistical evidence. More importantly, you personally may need to make life changing decisions if you ever have to choose a school or hospital.

And a very similar issue affects how we interpret football results :)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Eight polo teams

A rather horrific story was front page news in England yesterday. Thirty two dead horses were found at a farm in the home counties not far from London.

English people love horses. They are pets and also working animals. The idea that some people breed them for food is considered fairly repulsive. Yet, in some parts of the world, horse meat is just meat.

It is not just the fact that it was horses that is so disturbing. But that number. Except around royal palaces, the south of England is an expensive congested area. Even when underfed and mistreated, these are big beasts. Did people really not realise that that all these animals were disappearing? Did nobody notice thirty two dead horses?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Random numbers and letters

Measurable marketing requires the use of control groups. Control groups require the selection of random samples. Ensuring statistical validity across overlapping groups, even with normal distributions, can be difficult. But randomization is easy.

The New Hampshire Democratic primary has just given Hillary Clinton a shock victory, whereas Barack Obama was predicted to win by the pollsters. I am not going to comment on policies, just on the most pathetic randomization that I have ever heard seen. Not in the poll sample selection, which can be difficult. But in the ballot itself, which is ridiculous.

It has been suggested, and tests have proved, that a name listed at the top of the ballot is more likely to be picked than when placed at the bottom. The effect could be up to 3%, but I think we still do not have enough data yet to quantify exactly.

As ABC News reported: This year, the secretary of state changed the procedure so the names were alphabetical starting with a randomly selected letter, in all precincts. The randomly selected letter this year was Z.

Now that is just ridiculous. So given the lack of surnames ending in Z, the order was simply alphabetical. The fact that "this year" it was Z implies they are going to maintain this crazy idea. So a name like Miller is nearly always going to be above a name like Nader, in fact about 96% of the time. How is that random? And a name like Cleasby is always going to be above a name like Courtney.

Life is unfair, but ballots should not be.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mind Your Language

There has now been a lot of media attention on yesterday's story. Though the coverage has tended to concentrate not on the actions but on the words.

The main fuss has been about the allegation that, in response to provocation from the dark skinned Andrew Symonds, the equally dark skinned Harbhajan Singh answered by calling him a "monkey". The umpire did not apparently hear the phrase, but after discussion with the those involved, the Indian has been banned for three matches.

Words can be bad. But actions can be much worse. I do not blame Symonds for not "walking", he left the umpire to make the decision. I do not even see a major problem with "sledging". Those are just words...

I think yesterday's picture is worth a thousand words.

But that does not excuse saying anything, you should still mind your language. Incidentally, that TV show from the late 1970s was a selection of the worst national stereotypes thrown together, and by the standards of today it was hideously offensive. But my parents enjoyed it. I guess because, however ridiculously they were portrayed, it was just an unusual joy to see a couple of brown faces on the television. Each character on the show had his own catchphrase...

I think yesterday's picture is worth a thousand apologies.

Monday, January 07, 2008

How Low Can Ponting Go?

Apologies in advance, an insular cricket article, and a picture …

As usual, I agree with the more considered cricket commentators such as Lawrence Booth and Peter Roebuck, and hence disagree with many of my fellow Indians … I think the umpire's decision is final and we should respect the result of the test match. We lost. The incompetence of the umpires contributed to the bad luck. Yet there is no reason to suspend the tour, or even to threaten to suspend the tour. If Bhaji wins his appeal, great. But we cannot threaten to pull out just because we can afford to do so. It's financial bullying and brinkmanship.

And the picture ... I fully credit the blogger Prem Panicker for it, but I cannot verify its authenticity, and if it is revealed to be doctored then I will take it down immediately. It does not change the result of the test match, we still lost. But if the picture is genuine then the Australian captain has some serious explaining to do.

Jeremy Clarkson Data Theft

The most famous motoring writer in England, Jeremy Clarkson tends to elicit extreme opinion. To use the old cliché, you either love him or you hate him. For example, his views on the environment are just selfish denialism but his views on health and safety have much insight, like I recall an assertion that we could greatly reduce traffic accidents if all cars had compulsory airbags that were made of titanium spikes.

Today I learned that JC published a very similar article to one of my recent notes, although I presume that he was paid a lot more for his one. We were both extremely sceptical of the furore surrounding the missing bank details. After all, if you want to help anyone to give you money, to avoid paperwork, a simple way to enable this is to give them your bank account number. Passwords and extra security should only be necessary to withdraw from an account.

Unfortunately, according to an unreferenced Autotrader article sent to me today, JC has been stung. He claims that someone set up a direct debit from his account using only the details printed in his newspaper column.

I believe that a part of Clarkson's argument is typical anti-government ignorance: "The bank cannot find out who did this because of the Data Protection Act and they cannot stop it from happening again." That seems hysterical nonsense.

But if the main thrust of the article is true, then I am worried.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sweet FA Cup

I wasted ninety minutes this afternoon watching a tedious football match.

Of course we do not expect to see a great game every time we sit down to watch one. That is part of the economic and psychological bargain that all sports enthusiasts are tied into. The price of those rare moments of inestimable exhilaration is the corresponding pain of innumerable defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. As I learned in the late 1970s, even Liverpool sometimes lose.

But it was not today's result that upset me. It was the whining excuses of the managers. The pathetic excuses that the players were "tired". Because they had to play two games per week. During the holiday season.

The reason that they get paid so much is because they are in the entertainment industry. So when everyone else has time off that is precisely when they should expect to be playing. That is why an entertainer's renumeration is more related to his audience than to his skill.

So they get paid tens of thousands of pounds every week. Poor buggers.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Hospitals in Britain are shutting their doors to all non-emergency cases.

Why? Because there is a high chance that you will get sick if you go there.

Today it's more true than ever. There are two possible explanations:

a) this proves that modern healthcare should be completely replaced by alternative medicine - and you are crazy

b) viruses are constantly evolving and they are easily transmitted when people live and work in close proximity - and much of this crowded island is a human zoo

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Read or Dead

I will read your comments later. I read a few comments today.

Today's note will lead to a more generic point. Yesterday's note led to a more genetic point.

In both "I read" and "you read" the tense is ambiguous and it can be very misleading. You thought. You wrote. You read. Why can't that word follow where others have led?

There is a significant trend in English for irregular verbs to become more regular. Based on millions of words of historical text, an excellent academic article has calculated the actual rates very precisely.

New verbs entering the English language universally follow regular conjugation rules. The least frequently used irregular verbs changed, or regularized, fastest. The data predicts the half-lives of 'be' and 'have' are 38,800 years, making these two verbs the most resistant to regularization. The team also predicts that the next irregular verb that will regularize is wed/wed/wed, because it is the least frequently used modern irregular verb. In fact, this verb is already is being replaced by wed/wedded/wedded in the four major English-language dictionaries.

Unfortunately, read doesn't seem to register as an irregular verb. I wish it did.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Adam and Eve

Although I refrained from doing so last year, this year I will sometimes permit myself to showcase an outside article in which I think something was explained well. Of course it must still be an example of insight that makes common sense out of apparently difficult concepts, but it will not necessarily be my insight.

However to start, a different subject from the core marketing and economic subjects as we take a short diversion into genetics. This is not the place to develop the theme that evolution explains everything. But when I first heard that "all women have a latest common ancestor who lived about 120,000 years ago" and "all men have a latest common ancestor who lived about 60,000 years ago" then I was initially sceptical.

Then I read this note by Mike Dunford and it all made perfect sense.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Wish Called Fonda

What ties my recent posts with classic English silliness with great literature with liberal politics with recently viewed movies?

Fierce Creatures - about a killing at a zoo. A wonderful under-appreciated film, the essential follow-up to another ex-python masterpiece. Links to a classic book.

Splitting Heirs - this should have been another classic. Is the UK monarchy fundamentally different from the Indian caste system?

Free Willy - a great sentient beast spared from a life of captivity. A nob joke. And another classic book.

Pinocchio - compared to X-factor finalists like puppets strung along by the real talent.

A Knight's Tale - I did say this would start getting personal.

But all this proves is that the answer to nearly everything is in Monty Python.