Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sex Tests

With the Olympics fast approaching, the pinnacle of worldwide athletic achievement, there has been a bit in the news about the "embarrassing" and expensive tests that suspects will be forced to undertake to prove that they are female.

The solution is blindingly obvious. A cost save and an efficiency win. And a better purer competition.

Simply scrap the tests. Have one competition, open to anyone; male, female or transgender.

The point is similar to that I mentioned regarding fit women in short skirts.

But oh no say the dissenters, the vast majority; the women need a separate competition, something not provided to other genetic groups. Some women would certainly beat some men, but the top female would not expect to win against the top male. So we should restrict each contest only to those with particular characteristics? Well, arguably yes. We should restrict the competition to those who are genetically human. But within that rather broad category, the competition is to decide who can run the fastest, jump the highest, throw the highest, etc. Surely that is an olympic ideal.

As should be evident in my views on medieval religions, I'm not misogynist, I genuinely love diversity. It would be great to see a woman break through the hegemony of male domination and beat the men at their own game. All under-represented groups should be encouraged to compete. And as the number of olympic sports increases, I'd hope there will be new ones where women tend to hold the top positions, and it is only a few brave men who try to match them. But for that to be possible we need to scrap the sex discrimination.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Few Good Menu

Slightly personal note, we got the new V+ box yesterday. And still seeing adverts everywhere implying that television is unimaginable without Sky+, I will say again that Sky are only selling the idea of time-shift TV; compared to others, their user interface is just rubbish.

But while we are on the subject of menu options, another personal recommendation. For anyone with direct family members who have lived through a famine, food is a very precious thing. Today I can afford to never be hungry. And my simple plea: restaurants, I just want to go to a place that does not have prices on the menu.

I do not ever want to, even unconsciously, be thinking of incremental costs when asking for more. Equally, when entertaining in a public place, I don't want my guests to feel even the slightest hint of guilt when ordering. I'm not talking about an all-you-can-eat help-yourself buffet, there are plenty of those, I am simply referring to a good quality reasonably priced restaurant (not a tapas bar) where you pay a set fee per person and order whatever you like from an extensive menu. Sounds so obvious. Yet I only know of one in all London. There must be many more, but where are they?

I'm sure there are loads. After all, I don't expect a "pay-whatever-you-wish" place that relies on the generosity of customers. And as for "moral hazard" concerns, that establishments would be bankrupted by system abusers, that argument is garbage. It would apply even more to the thriving buffets where the big eaters can tuck in to their hearts' content. In other places like Red Corner there is much more control; each item is ordered and served individually, so the restaurant has far more ability to prevent abuse. It is a good business idea. It should be copied.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Beer, Music and Science

Loud music in bars encourages people to drink more, unless it drives them off. That's old news now, and we can attest from personal experience anyway.

The results, published online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, show that the louder the music, the more swiftly the drinkers finished their beer, ordered more – or left.

But though I was not very impressed by that conclusion, I was very impressed by the research of Katherine Sanderson of Nature. She simply looked at some of the other publications of Nicolas Guéguen, Professor of Behavioural sciences at the Université de Bretagne-Sud who led the study. A few examples of his published research from his website:

1. Semantically induced love and helping behavior

2. The domestic dog as a facilitator in social interaction: An evaluation on helping and courtship behaviors.

3. The effects of women’s cosmetics on men’s courtship behavior.

4. The effect of a woman’s smile on men’s nonverbal behavior.

5. Women’s eye contact and men’s later interest: Two field experiments

Well done to Katherine for the spotting them, that is real research. And well done to Nicolas for getting away with it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Economics of Acting

Not the acts that candidates put on to feign corporate enthusiasm that I noted earlier, this is about the real thing.

It's almost a recession, it is getting harder for many people to find work in many industries. But my Dad keeps getting calls from his agent; why? Obviously he is a great actor, his legendary religious work proves that, but there may be broader economic reasons too. According to professional screenwriter John August:

Casting people are having a hard time finding actors of a certain age, especially minorities, for episodic parts. These are the "day players" — roles in which an actor might have a scene or two in a given episode, never to return.

Day players aren’t extras. There is actual acting required. Casting directors will bring in a few candidates to read for the part, and the producers/director will pick. A good day player can really elevate a scene. A bad day player is a disaster.

If you’re trying to cast a day player in their 20s (say, a car wash attendant), it’s easy. You’ve got thousands of people to choose from. Even if you need a specific characteristic — say, Russian-speaking — you’re going to have great candidates.

But according to the screenwriter, there is a huge shortage of older ethnic folks who can perform on cue. He suggests some reasons in the article, clearly being only a day player is unlikely to satisfy a lifetime's aspiration for the ambitious migrant, additionally perhaps the career choice of "actor" was not an acceptable one for many ethnic groups, perhaps some older first-generation immigrants simply cannot speak English clearly enough while those who are more eloquent and integrated and educated already feel financially secure.

My family is full of exceptions.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Free the slave

I asked a frivolous question in the last post; over at Marginal Revolution some serious economists have discussed broadly the same issue in a more serious way:

1. Risk Free No Longer - Government Bonds were generally considered the safest investment, but even they can be insured, and the premiums required to do so are rising sharply.

2. Spend More Today - that is the general suggestion to those who expect their salaries to rise, to those who have welfare guarantees, and to those who expect to die soon.

But I leave you with a comment from that article. Isn't real happiness freedom? And isn't freedom in a capitalist/consumerist system money?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Choice of the Slave

Poor Cristiano Ronaldo. He may be a talented footballer but according to Sepp Blatter, head honcho of FIFA, he is a modern day slave. According to Pelé and many others, he is not.

Ronaldo has a reputation for being a bit flash with the cash, for not investing wisely. But the winger is reputed to earn about £120K per week. If he doesn't spend it or give it away, if he did want to keep it all secure while setting up the Cristiano Ronaldo Home for Retired Footballers, where would he put it?

He could put it into the bank, but maybe no bank is safe now. Even if the government stepped in to bail out the bank, it would only compensate about three days of work for him. So that's barely any use at all.

He could invest in property. But our friends Fanny and Freddy suggest that the property market could be set for a serious crash.

He could buy gold and diamonds. But they would need to be insured. And if banks collapse, then surely insurance companies would follow?

He could invest in the stock market. But that isn't doing very well either, and it's hardly a safe investment anyway.

So where should poor Ronaldo invest his earnings?

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Supply versus demand. Price correction versus rationing. Three current examples.

Firstly, crude oil. Those ostriches and optimists who think that the high price of oil is just a temporary blip caused by "speculation" in the futures market should face reality. Our lifestyles will change. For some of the economics, Paul Krugman.

Secondly, petrol. Not the long term year on year price increase caused by the point above, but the refusal to change prices in the face of temporary supply restriction. For an example of the madness, my post here.

Thirdly, the iPhone. In this case, scarcity is deliberate strategy. And I think a bad strategy. Apple could have managed this so much better. As usual, Seth Godin has some suggestions for how.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Becoming an Expert

In football, my club is the one I play for, not the one I "support". I try to have the same outlook in work, getting involved is better than not, creating is better than consuming. And in music?

As a manager, as a recruiter, you look for the rough diamonds, those in whom you see the potential to be experts in their field. Are they born or made? One view is that of Anders Ericsson:

Counter to the common belief that expert performance reflects innate abilities and capacities, recent research in different domains of expertise has shown that expert performance is predominantly mediated by acquired complex skills and physiological adaptations.

That's perfectly clear. So if I spend enough time practising on the guitar, I may become like Brian.

However the British Psychology Digest injected some reality today, quoting more recent research. More practice can only make you an expert if you have a basic level of musical aptitude to start with.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The New Society

I mentioned it back in the old world, but on those rare occasions when it reflected its tagline, The Real Hustle was great television. Patronising perhaps, but we all draw some pleasure from seeing the comeuppance of selfish idiots who thought they could make a quick killing.

Increasingly however, the programme does not trade on the greed but instead on the generosity and kind spirits of the supposed "victims". It suggests that everyone who asks for help should be treated as a crook, every id displayed to you should be treated as a fake id, everyone who stops you to ask for directions is just trying to pick your pocket. It may be true, but it is evil. It is the opposite of civilised society.

But like the greatest creation of Jim Steinman, there is hope in the box. On the internet, it pays to be generous. Provide more links out and more people will link in. I'm paraphrasing Neil Perkin here, but the more that you drive people away, the more you will draw people in. A great business model. As Tim Berners-Lee seems to be saying more and more, the web is not technology, it is people connected. It is society. Common Sense.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Monkish Ignorance and Superstition

The folks at the Language Log, in addition to some fairly technical discussion of innate linguistic tendencies, often highlight people who just get get it completely wrong about the "rules of grammar". So they usually identify fools. But yesterday they identified liars.

It is similar to the case I mentioned on 7th March where a sly salesman changed my quote. It was not just correction of spelling or grammar; although I hope you find no fault here, I actually care little for those. What piqued me was a change in implied meaning.

Yesterday was the same idea, but a far more serious example. Thomas Jefferson is a hero, the Declaration of Independence was just an expression of Common Sense. His entire life's work was an attempt to elevate science and reason over outdated ideas of hereditary privilege and superstition.

So George Bush quoted Thomas Jefferson in his Independence Day speech. Directly from the transcript on the White House website: "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be — to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all — the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."

An egregious lie. Completely missing from the middle of the quote above, after "to burst the chains" and before the comma were the crucial words: "under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves"

That's all that was omitted. You can see why George's speechwriter chose that omission.

From everything I have ever read of him, Thomas Jefferson wanted to build a new world free of organised religion, a state without church. Not only does George Bush seem to want to reverse that decision, he seems to want to rewrite history to do so.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Under Pressure - Money Matters

Different people react differently to pressure - some crack, some thrive. But research indicates that if things matter too much, then performance suffers. The undercover economist wrote an excellent article on this subject today.

The researchers offered simple challenges to impoverished villagers in India. If the incentive was an average day's income then the performance was significantly better than if the incentive was equivalent to six months of income. With such enormous life-changing amounts, the pressure was just too much. Even using rich professional footballers instead of poor Indian villagers as lab rats, the basic conclusion is the same.

That sounds obvious. But remember The Apprentice, where every other candidate seemed to say "I want this more than anyone", and I ridiculed the phrase, saying no serious businessman should be taken in by that bullshit. Well the research would seem to suggest that those who want it the most are those whose performance drops the most. So perhaps, in the really big crunch situations, other factors being equal, those who are already financially secure, or at least those who have the most outside opportunities, will perform significantly better than those for whom the result really matters.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Gods In

Five recent quotes from the legendary Seth Godin:

1. The magic of low-hanging fruit

It's way more profitable to encourage each of your existing customers to spend $3 than it is to get a stranger to spend $300.

2. Only borrow money to pay for things that increase in value

It's a short list: your business, your house and your education, mostly. Stocks if you're smarter than me. That's pretty much it.

3. There is no such thing as price pressure

Your sales force and your customers may scream that you need to lower your price. It's not true. You need to increase your value. If people don't want to pay, it's because you're not delivering enough value for the money you're charging.

4. Silence is a virtue

If the best thing you can think of is a bad pun, random capitalization and a weak photo (salt and pepper included!) it's probably better to do nothing at all.

5. What if this were my last post?

Would this post be worthy?