Monday, June 30, 2008

Breaking the Rules

It's halfway through the year. It's one year into this blog. According to vjack:

  • Why do you blog? The more important traffic and readership growth are to you, the more I'd recommend a 1 post/day target.
  • How new is your blog? The newer it is, the more I'd recommend averaging 1 post/day.

  • And over the last year, I have written 1 post/day. It's one of the rules.

    It was the last day in the office for a friend today, not through choice, what is a cost saving for the client is a loss of income for the contractor. He is on Facebook, but like many, fears the consequences of potential employers looking into it. My view on that is unchanged. Everything there is public, that's why it was posted. It's the same with this blog, and I think there is already enough here to show far more numeracy, literacy, organisation and originality than in most of the CVs that I see. Some of it may be controversial, but that just shows courage and lateral thinking ability. I hope.

    So time to stop. No more daily posts. Well time to slow down anyway.

    Saturday, June 28, 2008

    One Year Old Today

    It's been a whole year since post one. Time to take stock. In the holistic tradition of this blog, almost like it's indexed, this should also pull the last few posts together.

    So the blog is perhaps like a real-time roadmap of middle America in these times of high gas prices. Well laid out, straight lines and an organised structure. Very clear and easy to read. Plenty of open space. And hardly any traffic!

    Thursday, June 26, 2008

    Room to breathe

    Despite my respect for the originator of the quote, I don't buy the cliché that the UK and US speak very differently. There are probably far more differences between regional accents just within England than there are between English and Americans. At least in the business world, perhaps unfortunately, we sound very similar.

    However across Europe, things sound very different. Yet they look broadly the same. Old buildings, little roads, people on the streets. But it's weird, people are talking incomprehensively. In America, you can understand the language perfectly, but the look of the place is completely different. Not because they have fundamentally different goals and aspirations from Europeans. But because they have more space.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008

    The One to One map

    I like maps. Wherever I go, I always like to get hold of a local map to see where things are in relation to each other, something that's not always easy to visualise when you're just looking round a strange country.

    The scale used is obviously important, but some things on a map are not to scale - the width of roads on a national atlas is the obvious example. Even looking at local area ones, that same measure can be misleading. On a UK road atlas, you see a road marked as an A road and a newcomer might assume that it's a major route, multi-lane, high speed, free of traffic lights, etc. Then you actually travel on the road and realise it could be a road through London where average speed is 10 mph. In contrast, you could see a single thin line leading out from the thick green line of the US Interstate, then find yourself on another six lane dual carriageway ... driving up and down the highway looking for an exit ... you can see your destination, but just can't get to it. Sorry, I digress.

    But an ideal scale would surely be one to one. When I was about seven years old, I remember reading of such a map in a fictional story, at that age I was probably reading Norman Hunter rather than Luis Borges; anyway the map could never be unwrapped because it would cover the entire country. So clearly an impossible dream.

    However, today, combine GoogleMaps with SatNav, we're just about there.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    Big Car Small Car

    There are still a lot of big cars in America. A colleague in charge of certain North American automotive metrics today pointed me to a recent study from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business that proved the regularly quoted mpg figures are often misleading.

    Simple numerical facts. As usual here, considering my own example instead of copying that from the study:

    First car is a typical one, one that does 30 mpg. Could increase by 10 mpg to give 40 mpg.
    Second vehicle is a large SUV. It does 15 mpg. Could increase by 10 mpg to give 25 mpg.

    Where is the bigger benefit? Both increase by 10 mpg so benefit is the same, right? Wrong.

    First increases mpg by 33%, second increases by 67%, so the second gives twice as much benefit, right? Wrong.

    Say the SUV increases only by 33% like the first case, 15 up to 20 (corresponding to 30 up to 40). The benefit is the same, right? Wrong.

    If the SUV increases only from 15 to 18 mpg, it still saves more fuel than increasing the car's mpg from 30 to 40. I've said it before: However far the journey.

    The Europeans have been using litres per 100 km for years. It just makes more sense.


    When you are on a trip, work or holiday, it is traditional to write an initial post saying that blog updates will be infrequent and unreliable for a while.

    However, while you are on a trip, there is a regular stream of new and unusual experience - if everything were the same then there would be no point travelling - and this provides good (at least original) material for the blog.

    But I'm not sure that I want this to become a travelogue. I suppose that's what Twitter and suchlike are for. While I ponder, this constitutes filler for the day.

    Sunday, June 22, 2008


    Live blogging. Spain versus Italy. Extra Time. Whenever a game is without a goal and there have not been many chances, the cliche is always the same, the sterotype is always the same: it's a chess match.

    This game is not like that. The cliche is in the teams. Spain are pretty to watch, knockng it around with the ball fizzing across the turf. Slick one-touch passing. The beautiful game. Perfect football ... except for one thing, typically lightweight and always muscled off teh ball in challenges, and despite the bullish centre forward, toothless in attack.

    Italy have embodied their cliche too. The dour, negative tactics. Their one creative midfielder (Pirlo) not playing. No width in midfield. Fullbacks who stay back. Catenaccio. The dying swan impresson after the slightest challenge. The "injured" player even crawled back onto the pitch to waste more time. World cup finalists apparently playing for penalties from the kickoff.

    Fabregas is stepping up for the final penalty ... justice!

    (links later - the fastest post on the web)

    Saturday, June 21, 2008

    Basic Stuff

    Chemistry again. Not the Girls Aloud album, not the science of predicting human attraction, neither my ABCD of the blogosphere. Just real simple high school chemistry.

    To keep your drains are fresh and clear, the advertisements suggest bleach. If that doesn't work, before calling the professional drainbusters, the last throw for the consumer chemical solution is a caustic solution called one shot.

    Bleach is sodium hypochlorite. One shot is concentrated sulphuric acid.


    Friday, June 20, 2008

    Objects in the rear view mirror

    may appear closer than they are.

    So wrote the musical genius, the songwriting legend, the greatest theatrical composer of the twentieth century, Mr Jim Steinman. That description was perhaps a little over the top, but it does reflect my opinion, he's been an idol of mine for decades. And as he himself has often stated, if you don't go over the top, you can't see what's on the other side. He's more known for intense symphonic power epics than for catchy melodies, but some people just can't stop humming those tunes now. Superb.

    Actually, in terms of the science, it's surely wrong. In order to get the maximum range of vision, any curved rear view mirror is usually convex. So objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear. The opposite of the title. Have a look, that's what the text on your mirror probably says.

    But of course the reverend Steinman was not talking about real mirrors.

    If life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Enjoying Your Work

    After a long day trying to clear the paperwork and a long evening trying to clear the drains, I read this article on the BBC site. It veers from banal observations to fairly random quotes, but there were also a whole load of good lines. A top five, slightly paraphrased:

    1. As noted by the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, there are three paths to meaning - work, love and suffering.

    2. Meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find.

    3. However menial your daily tasks, do them well. According to Richard Sennett's new book, The Craftsman, this ability to master a skill and then practice it well satisfies a basic human need.

    4. Managing is one of the most thankless jobs in the world. What managers are mainly trying to do is to get other people to do things that they don't want to.

    5. Petty bureaucracy is what destroys pleasure at work. The meetings, the second guessing, the pointless duplication, the politics, we all moan. Just let us do the damned job.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Fuely Truckers

    Sorry for the spoonerism. But clearly I don't go with the flow here.

    As the tanker strike wound on yesterday, the enterprising owner of a fuel station changed forecourt price to align demand with the change in supply. It was exactly the same procedure that he had been doing for the other 364 days of the year. Exactly the same procedure that every other fuel station manager also does all the time. Exactly what every businessman needs to do to survive.

    But fuel price watchdog put out the nonsensical statement: "Putting the price up so much at a time when drivers in the South West are being hit worst by strikes is inexcusable."

    The tabloids deliberately stoked up the hysteria, then did everything possible to prevent sensible mitigation of its consequences.

    The undercover economist got it right. The nation got it wrong.

    Monday, June 16, 2008


    Prosody. That's the word I was looking for. Back when I referred to the "unique sound of a language". Back when I said that I prefer my name to be pronounced differently depending upon the language being used at the time.

    Mark Liberman attempts to quantify it at the oft-quoted Language Log, which is also the place to go if you want to debunk crazy theories that English needs to replicate the rules of Latin grammar.

    According to Not the Nine o Clock News, the hardest words to say in English are Kinda Lingers. I suggest that a cunning linguist could do better.

    Saturday, June 14, 2008

    What's in a name

    Watching Euro2008, we constantly get to hear the commentators mis-pronouncing foreign names. The ITV commentator who constantly refers to "Nicola Anelka" (sic) is simply an idiot. But that's an easy target. More controversially, I suggest that we sometimes go too far trying to get the right native pronunciation, sometimes it's ok to Anglicise...

    My name is Rana, I am writing in English, but I have a different name in Bengali. My name in Bengali is Rana.

    I have neither the knowledge nor the keyboard to accurately write out all the different phonemes involved, but in some respects English is a very limited language. Only twenty-six letters, though other sounds can be created through combinations of those letters. I actually like the limited set used here, it gives extra scope for pun and games. Bengali has over forty letters including more than one that approximates to n. The first is like the English one. The second is a bit different, and it is not the same as the Spanish ñ either. My name uses the second one. More significantly, within my Bengali name, the stress is not so strongly on the first syllable.

    But, and this is the message here, if you are talking in English then keep your pronunciation in English. Don't try to completely copy the native phrasing. I've said it before. It just sounds odd.

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    Euro 2008

    The Czech was trying to remove the Austrian's shirt, the Italian was giving the Romanian a loving arm around his neck, the Frenchman was just trying to hold the Dutchman as close as possible. It was meant to be football.

    But this isn't the place to read detailed match reports from the Euro2008 football championship. What looks like an update here will probably be a dubious analogy to a current television show, or a reflection on some incident at work.

    Apart from the obvious official news and sport sites, the place to go for daily game updates is

    It's great. Unlike the form that my team is showing there.

    Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Talk Like An Apprentice

    Top five examples of meaningless babbling bullshit that demonstrate absolutely nothing without a proper explanation:

    1. "I'm a straight talker, I don't bullshit, I don't backstab". They all say that at the beginning. Does anybody ever say otherwise?

    2. "I'm a winner". That's why you're sitting in the losing team about to get fired.

    3. "I always give one hundred and ten per cent". Yes, everyone else goes around saying "I always give ninety per cent"

    4. "After all I've been through, I really deserve it". Why? Oh you've had a hard life. Compared to a third world refugee?

    5. "Please, I want this more than anyone". That never gets the ridicule it deserves. After four series, we finally heard Claire questioned when she repeated it in the final, but Lee used almost exactly the same words a few seconds later.

    Leave it out. It impresses nobody. Except Sir Alan Sugar.

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008

    The Group of Death

    Choice of TV viewing today, Euro 2008 continues, and it's the final of The Apprentice.

    But let's stick to football. A major football tournament can never be complete without the early establishment of a Group of Death ... This time round the reaper is pointing his bony finger in the general direction of Italy, Netherlands, France and Romania.

    1. Italy: An undoubted history of success, the most consistent top achiever. But somehow has also acquired a bit of a reputation for sneaky underhand tactics.

    2. Holland: The most flat, but probably my personal favourite of the four. However according to the classic quote "too orange to be taken seriously"

    3. France: Another powerful and consistent contender. Has a loud and strong global presence despite a comparatively weak local league.

    4. Romania: Quietly efficient. The least prominent and least recognisable of the four, but still qualified well ahead of the finals.

    Incidentally, if we are to imagine an Apprentice equivalent of Group of Death, four top rated contenders, what if they brought back the two top females from last year to go with the two top females from this year?

    More Time Management

    Not your time, other people's …

    Despite the implicit oxymoron in the phrase, there is very little that a direct manager can do to directly manage, at least in terms of positive feedback. Of course in the longer term there is pay and bonus and opportunity for advancement, but within typical large corporations those are often more directly influenced by much higher levels of management, by personnel departments, by collective bargaining agreements and by other external influences. And there are softer factors; recognition and praise and general mentoring and guidance and leadership. But in terms of specific positive incentives, there is little that can be done during day-to-day operations.

    However, in order to meet the flexible requirements of the flexible workplace, the least that a manager should do is show more flexibility. However junior her staff, she should allow them headroom and discretion. For example in a typical operation with an eight hour workday, there is no way that every day has exactly eight hours of work within it. There are some days when it is essential to do more than eight to meet immediate business deadlines. The obvious corollary is that there are times when it does not affect the business if particular staff work for less than eight.

    Despite that, I'm not a believer in the old cliché of "she gets the job done, hours don't matter at all". That's wrong. Time counts too. Nobody can foresee and estimate everything required by "the job" in advance, so there is sometimes a requirement to just "be there". Contingency. Bums on seats. So the total should add up to (at least) those contracted. However a manager must be able to move hours, even if she is not permitted to create hours. It is impossible to manage normal business fluctuations without this discretion.

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    Sweet Charity

    I'm not sure about this one. It may offend.

    You get a charity request where the requestor is doing something difficult or dangerous in return for a donation. Should that make you more likely to contribute than just shaking a collection tin? I'd say yes, the arduous task shows genuine commitment to the cause, it is an indicator that the cause is genuinely a worthy one.

    But, and this is the slightly troublesome bit, a lot of people actually pay their own money to perform directly comparable tasks, whether running in marathons or scaling new heights. So if you know that the requestor is using the donation to facilitate what is basically their hobby anyway, should you be wary?

    On balance I'd say it doesn't matter. Even if the first x of the collection goes to fund the event and everything above that goes to the charity, then it's still worthwhile. That's obviously the case if x is only a small fixed sum but it's still the case even if x is a significant percentage; because it still leaves a contribution to charity which would not otherwise be raised, the requestor's task is only a side effect to the primary cause.

    However let's go one step too far. Maybe that side effect is not a hidden cost but actually a hidden benefit. We don't actually care for most of the charities that solicit donation. But we do tend to care for the people who are requesting the donation. Perhaps we are simply more willing to help pay for a friend's adventure than for an anonymous sufferer's cure?

    Monday, June 09, 2008

    Medium Rare

    That last note was not a particular endorsement of the V+ personal video recorder, it was a response to the Sky+ advertising hype that specifically uses celebrity endorsement of a product to imply that there is nothing better.

    Under the terms of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Act 2008, I should point out that I have never worked for Virgin Media and have no commercial arrangement with them. Neither with Sky. But we got one set up for my parents, and the other for the in-laws. But now that they time-shift their viewing, I can no longer use my psychic powers to predict what time they will call us at home.

    Incidentally the professional psychics failed to predict some consequences of the same legislation - apparently honest spiritualists could be targeted - there's a joke there somewhere.

    Sunday, June 08, 2008

    Time Shift Television

    David Gower, Ross Kemp, Felicity Kendall, Michael Parkinson. Icons of English society.

    They say: "Get Sky Plus and you can't imagine TV without it". I certainly can. TV is a lot better without it. Of course I can't imagine TV without a PVR, but there are far better ones.

    "Its [Sky+] success is built on word of mouth, so it seems natural to tap into that strong sense of advocacy in our advertising," said Brian Sullivan, the managing director of Sky's customer group.

    It is to old TV what Windows 3.1 is to DOS. But we've moved from Windows 3.1. For those with cable, the V+ box has more storage, can record two while watching a third, allows you to keep watching and listening while setting up schedules, the user interface is simply much better. But it does not have the same marketing.

    Friday, June 06, 2008

    The Hills Are Alive ...

    ... with the sound of football.

    Thanks to the majesty of the IPL, there has been a lot about cricket recently. Tomorrow attention switches to football, as the European Championships commence, with Switzerland and Austria co-hosting, and every game broadcast live in England.

    But England are not playing. In many ways this is a good thing. It forced a change of management, and hopefully a more professional approach that will be less pressured by the whims of a few star players.

    And, more importantly, it means that we can enjoy the football. We can enjoy the game without the blinkered jingoism of many commentators. And without the agony of partisan support. May the best team win.

    Though I hope it's Holland.

    Future Planning

    Paul Krugman is a columnist for the New York Times, and he looked back today. Back in 1996, for the centenary of the NYT magazine, he was asked to write an article imagining that he was in 2096 looking back on the world of one hundred years ago.

    He had just five main points. Quoting directly:

    1. Soaring Resource Prices
    The first half of the 1990's was an era of extraordinarily low prices for raw materials. In retrospect, it is hard to see why anyone thought that situation would last.

    2. The Environment as Property
    in a world where billions of people can afford cars, vacations and food in plastic packages, the limited carrying capacity of the environment had become perhaps the single most important constraint on the standard of living.

    3. The Rebirth of the Big City
    ...urban density favored personal interaction, which turned out to be essential.

    4. The Devaluation of Higher Education
    These days, jobs that require only 6 or 12 months of vocational training -- paranursing, carpentry, household maintenance and so on -- pay nearly as much as if not more than a job that requires a master's degree, and pay more than one requiring a Ph.D.

    5. The Celebrity Economy
    The fans attend these concerts not to appreciate the music (they can do that far better at home), but for the experience of seeing their idols in person. In short, instead of becoming a knowledge economy we became a celebrity economy.

    Excellent. The big issue is that there are limited natural resources. The last point is a consequence of information becoming free. Remember he wrote all that back in 1996 imagining the vastly different world of 2096. The future is coming a lot faster than we think.

    Thursday, June 05, 2008


    A reprise. But it's so relevant again.

    Sir Alan Sugar, star of The Apprentice, used to start each show with the line "I don't like liars, I don't like schmoozers, I don't like bullsh**ers".

    The four candidates left after yesterday's semi-final prove that actually he does. All four embody those qualities, as do many of those who were fired, they were positively praised after spouting the same ego-babble in their interviews.

    But I fully admit, those three qualities should really help you to be a good salesman of tat, maybe that's what Sir Alan is actually looking for, though I suggest that other qualities are more important to be a good manager of people.

    Wednesday, June 04, 2008

    Short Note Long Note

    As noted in my ten rules of blogging, I try to maintain a strict daily word limit here. So it's easier for you. It's harder for me.

    I saw a presentation today that used the classic quote from Mark Twain, paraphrasing from memory: "I don't have time to write a short letter so I'll write a long letter". But he did not really say those words. It sounds the sort of thing he would say, so people believe it and propagate it. So here are five real quotes:

    1. No church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field and live.

    2. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve.

    3. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition.

    4. Civilization largely consists in hiding human nature. When the barbarian learns to hide it we account him enlightened.

    5. Supposing is good, but finding out is better (I'll add in the links/references tomorrow:)

    Tuesday, June 03, 2008

    Premier League Entertainment

    Top five reasons why the Indian Premier League could be considered better than the English Premier League.

    1. Developing local talent. The number of foreign players allowed in each IPL team has been capped at four. Equally there is a requirement that young local players must be included in the squad. European Free Trade laws, designed to maximise business profits, have been leveraged to prevent that here (despite FIFA suggestions).

    2. Tension. The English Premier League was decided on the last day. Great. But as soon as Ryan Giggs scored ManU's second goal about twenty minutes from the end, then the result was more or less sure. The IPL season went down to the very last second, the last ball of the last over of the last match.

    3. Interesting Team Names. Why append the name of the city with the word "united" when the club is one of the most divisive elements in that city. Call it after a brand of cigarette. Or after a very special car.

    4. Drugs. The captain of the English Premier League winners missed his drug test because he was shopping. Pathetic. The captain of the Indian Premier League winners definitely took his drug test, and he even slimmed down specially for it.

    5. Cheerleaders. That's all.

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    Man goes bananas

    Talking of fruit, the two best in the world …

    There were once many kinds of bananas prevalent across the world. Today virtually all of those sold in the Western world are not just the same species but often the same individual. Almost all banana trees in commercial plantations are clones of one another, identical twins multiplied by millions, propagated by cuttings. This gives great consistency in size, texture and flavour for the supermarkets. It also means that they are identically susceptible to the same infections - if a virus can kill one, it can easily kill them all. Read Johann Hari for a history of the banana industry, how the CIA aided American multinationals in the suppression of nonconformist elements to construct banana hegemony.

    The second instance where supermarket insistence on consistent shape, year round availability and resistance to blemish have bastardised the product is the case of the mango. Those big bland brazilian blobs we see in Sainsbury's are nothing like the delicate delectation of the traditional Indian fruit. The Guardian food supplement yesterday had a similar lament, though it did refer to horrible terms like "pulping" and "smoothies" - yuck, it's a fruit not a drink.

    (sic note - yes I know that bananas don't really grow on trees, but neither does money)