Thursday, April 11. 2013
At the top of the South Sea Bubble of 1711-1720, investors were eagerly pouring money into an enterprise advertised as:
"a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is"
At the (current) top of the Bitcoin Bubble (2011 - ?) investors are pouring money into:
"a company* for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, with a currency that doesn't exist, generated by a method that nobody is to know what it is (and wouldn't understand if they did)"
This time, of course, It Will Be Different.....
Or alternatively, read George Santayana
* I use the term loosely
Monday, April 1. 2013
Guardian's April Fool joke was Guardian Goggles, a device that makes the avidly right-on personista happier by removing sights that are vexatious to their tender souls:
"Now, when you're out shopping, you needn't have memorised our recent features on ethically sourced foods. Just call up the 'Mini-Monbiot' app, and the products you're looking at will be rated in front of your eyes."
The real joke though, is that this really exists today, as people are increasingly selective about the opinions they seek on the Internet leading to a wider polarization of views. It even has a name - Selective Exposure. None so blind as those that can see.....
Monday, January 28. 2013
George Orwell is the patron saint of dystopian satirists everywhere, writing some of the most powerful satire of the 20th century (though sadly these days it seems some people think 1984 is a "how to" manual, not a warning to humanity.)
Anyway, this is Orwell Month, and one thing we (try) to keep in mind when writing this blog is his 5 rules of Good Writing.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
And his 6th rule, in true Orwellian style, to overturn his own rules....
The Social Media explosion of "stuff" being written could really use these rules, some blog writing is absolutely woeful. Having said that it's much, much harder than you think to write with these rules in mind, and reading most "Olde Meedja" tech and biz-text is a lesson in Orwellian rule-breaking. Twitter is very interesting in that it does make one focus the message in a very Orwellian way.
(Incidentally, its well worth reading the whole Orwell canon, there is a lot more to him than 1984 and Animal Farm.)
Tuesday, January 22. 2013
Its the ay after Orwell Day, and news comes in that Smartphones are not just blocking Porn - now they are blocking blocking Feminist content - and Satire, of all things. Torygraph:
Mobile provider 3UK is blocking access to political satire as "mature content"; Orange is preventing access to feminist articles as "mature content" through its automatically applied Orange Safeguard service; several providers are blocking perfectly legitimate sites like Pink News because they deal with gay issues, or Channel 4's excellent Embarrassing Bodies website, because of the graphic discussion of body parts and sexuality.
Porn I can understand, and I can see how some sites may look pornographic, as they may have Bad Words in them (literally, in the case of the Scunthorpe Gazette) and I know some of the more radical feminists can cause furores - and even get taken down by their newspapers (well, one did, anyway), but Satire? The implication is clearly that Boat Rocking Ideas are Bad For You. Orwell would smile wryly...
As the Torygraph says:
There are two distinct issues here – the blanket blocks, which wall off certain parts of the internet, and the overzealous, stupidly risk-averse corporate definitions of what is too "mature" for under 18s to see.
Would you belive that Broadstuff is one of those publications that falls foul of some corporate websites (and not just the ones of companies we take pot shots at). Now I know we talk about racks and porn and that, but its strictly in the interests of strategic advice, you understand.. But the main issue we have here is the risk averse corporately cleansed content:
The phone companies are run by risk-averse, bloodless suits who just don't want trouble. It's much easier for them to just block anything even mildly offensive than to deal with the "moral outrage". That keeps the suits safe from a Daily Mail article, but ignores the fact that exactly the people who probably need to be able to browse sites privately, without leaving an internet history that mum or dad might find on a shared family machine, are teenagers who are looking at mature content like advice for homosexuals, feminist blogs or sexual health advice.
But Satire? Really? Are the Professionally Offended on the march now?
Still, if you look at the pops we have taken at Planet Mobile over the years, maybe we're on the hit list right now....anyway when they start blocking technology satire like wot we sometimes write, you'll let us know, right?
Monday, January 21. 2013
Suitability for online retail matrix (Green = no brainer, Orange = tricky, Red = very hard)
Last week HMV (which used to be His Masters Voice, and was founded before World War 2), the last major music 'n movies high street chain store in the UK, went bust. It would seem that competition from the Internet (ie online shopping) finally did in for them. Cue anguished lamentation about The Death Of The High Street and so on and so forth.
So is the Death Of The High Street now inevitable?
Well, we've been doing a bit of work on the Future City over the last few months, focussing on the impact of the overall digital connectivity revolution as it sweeps through the overall Urban ecosystem. Major new forms of communication always make major changes to the way people live - where, how, with who etc, and this time will be no exception. So here are the "given" trends for high street retail in this age:
1. The shift to online ordering plus physical delivery is already well established, and growing rapidly - Ironically, in a way its "back to the future", in that before the supermarket and family car, the physical delivery was often done by the retailer - I still recall "the butcher's boy" in the small town my grandmother lived, and that existed until the 70's. This online trend is not going to go away. I wrote the first version of the matrix (top of post) in the mid 1990's predicting the "sweet spot" of very predictable commodities at lower costs (bottom left in the matrix), so Amazon as an early entrant was no surprise. What has happened over the last 15 odd years is that online retail has increasingly made gains outside it's sweet spot into adjacent areas (the orange quares). For example, experiential goods like shoes were supposedly going to be very hard to sell online...and then came Zappos. So were low shelf life, hard to transport items like fresh food - but in big cities, with short distances and high user penetration, the economics already worked - so new users drove innovation in low cost heating and refrigeration, so delivery range expanded, which increased penetration, which...is why you get Ocado vans buzzing around as the new London landmark vehicle (but it is still costly, so these companies are still struggling to be very profitable). What still remains hard to deliver online are things in the red square - like theatre, live concerts, drinks in pubs with friends etc - but even there TV + Twitter is delivering an interesting faux-attendance experience.
And many retailers still have dumb policies that drive people online! As Technotropolis notes, retailers are architects in their own downfall - here is how to not go about reducing the rush online:
A dumb policy then, and this is clothing - a good which is a marginal vs online and ofline, as getting a good fit/right feel is an experience that customers enjoy from "real" stores. As Technotropolis notes it could all have been so different:
Had the manager been given the authority to accept my explanation – rather than strict training around company returns policies – they would not have lost me. Herein lies a lesson for the large chains to take on board. The importance now of a truly personalised service, and why chain stores need to let their managers act like independents, and allow them to make their own rational decisions.
However, even before online retailing took off, retailers, shop landlords and local authorities often behaved as if the customer were a problem, and not an asset, and continued to implement dumb policies that forced people away from the High Street. These sort of policies essentially were based on an axiom that the customer was largely powerless, was there for the plucking, and had no other options. And then the Local Authorities handed the shopper another, better, option, while still colluding to make it harder for the High Street. So for several decades now, UK High Streets have had to deal with the depradations of large, out of town but conveniently located retail parks - typically with a headline hypermarket food and general goods store and then other major consumer retailers pack around them, enabling an "all in one" shopping trip. Their other advantages were also readily apparent - no traffic jams, free, easy parking; a clean and secure environment, (fairly) easy movement of bulky and heavy items to the car, and customers voted with their cars. So, as footfall on the High Street inevitably fell, how did many local authorities react to this threat? They almost all did the opposite of the blindingly necessary, they:
Now to be sure, this was due to budget squeezes, but strangling one's own Golden Geese has never been a sustainable policy. In addition, the high street landlords didn't help, sticking to high-risk long rental period contracts and upward only rent reviews, even as the value of the high street shop assets was falling. So in effect, the High Street was crippled by a raft of dumb policies long before any online retailers emerged, they have merely been the last straw.
Now it would appear that some changes are (slowly) starting to emerge - some local authorities are starting to change, some landlords are becoming more rational, some retailers understand the need for good service and experiences - but it is slow, and piecemeal, so it is very unlikely to stem the onward march of the online retail world. And even if it does, it is very likely there will still be a lot of high street retail space looking for re-assignment, as there will just not be the need for what is essentially pretty warehouse shelf space. This needs to be seen as an opportunity by local authorities, not a problem - or it will turn into a problem. Organisations like London's Space Makers Agency are pioneering new approaches to retail space re-use, but its still very early days.
So right now there is tremendous flux, and Online Retail has just started to meet the Smart City, so it is hard to see clearly what the 3, 5, 10 and 20 year outcomes will look like for the High Street. But it is a good idea in such circumstances to "follow the money". In the UK there are some large socio-economic trends that are strong predictors:
- An extreme shortage of living space
So as we continue our work, the future is...still unclear. But one thing is for certain though - the High Street will restructure more radically in the next 5-10 years than it has in the last 100. Hang on tight, its going to be bumpy.....
(Update - been listening to DLD13, one of the participants in the online retail panel made a very interesting point, that financial crises tend to drive massive behaviour changes, so as OECD countries come out of it we can expect a major step-up to the shift online - plays to our point above)
Saturday, December 22. 2012
Source: UNOCD/Guardian; Analysis: Broadsight
Like many others, I was horrrified by the Sandy Hook shootings, but I was rather taken aback by the NRA's statement on the affair, blaming (in essence) mental health and computer games for the shootings, and not the US's very high gun ownership rates - the Grauniad has the full speech, over here, but here is the passage on mental health:
The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment?
And here is the one on Computer Games:
And here's another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here's one: it's called Kindergarten Killers. It's been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn't or didn't want anyone to know you had found it?
So, do these claims hold up? Is the US uniquely in the grip of homicidal monsters and video-gamers? Well, I had a look at the UN OCD data and the Guardian's data vs the 9 OECD countries with the next highest gun ownership rates. Being Western, democratic OECD countries they are those most likely to be similarly afflicted with said monsters and gamers, in the table above. My assumption being that, given not too dissimilar lifestyles and access to videogames, the populations would have a not too dissimlar level of mental illnesses (in all their guises) and vile video game playing.
The results are quite interesting (see chart above). Firstly, US Homicide rates overall are about 5 times higher than the average of the other 9, and US gun ownership rates as a % of population are about 2 1/2 times higher than the "high gun owning OECD" average. (this is a by country average, by the way, if I adjusted it for populations it would be lower, as France and Germany - the most populous countries - are less violent than the smaller ones up there).
But now look at the middle columns - US Non-gun homicides are only about 2 1/2 times higher than the other countries rates (1.98 vs 0.72) but the 4th column is very interesting - the rate of gun ownership as a predictor of non-gun homicides is near enough the same in the US and the 9 OECD countries, 45 to 47 thousand guns per non-gun homicide. In other words, the % of guns in the population as a predictor of non-gun related homicide is near-as-damnit exactly the same as in the 9 OECD countries on average - in fact, Americans are less likely to kill each others in non-firearm ways than Swedes, Finns and those very violent Canadians for every extra gun they buy. the problem is , they buy a lot more than those Swedes, Finns and Canadians.
From that you can conclude that US society being more afflicted with "Monsters and Video Gamers" than the other 9 OECD countries is unlikely, in fact its those Polar Region countries that need to keep an eye on their videogamers...the problem probably lies elsewhere.
So, look at the last 2 columns - gun related homicides - the US rate of 2.97 homicides per 100,000 is 10x that of the other OECD countries' 0.3. And the last column sums it up - you need 30 thousand US guns per gun homicide in the US, and 115 thousand guns per gun homicide in the other OECD countries - so rather than having roughly the same ratio of guns needed per non gun homicide, the guns neded per gun homicide is 1/4 in the USA, ie you are 4 times more likely to get a gun homicide per gun sold in the US than the other OECD countries.
So in the US, yes, people do kill people - but its not that much of an outlier vs "rest of OECD". But in the US, per head of population, guns definitely do kill people a hell of a lot more than elsewhere. Which leaves me to conclude (contrary to NRA assertions) that People kill people, sre - but Guns kill people much better!
Now these statistics, to be sure, only show correlaton - but the totally different rates for gun and non gun homicides, and the similarity to the OECD for non gun homicides per % guns owning population, argues rather strongly for a hypothesis that there is in fact some form of causation, i.e that ready access to guns leads people to ready access to "gun homicide" solutions to their problems.
In other words, if gun ownership was brought down by a factor of 2.5 to look more like OECD levels, gun homicides would very probably show a far steeper decline, by a factor up to 4x.
Monday, November 12. 2012
I think even the best satirists couldn't have made up the situation at the BBC at the moment.
In essence, it has been discovered that over many years, a certain person with a predilection for paedophilia was allowed to run rampant in some BBC programs, and elsewhere. Not only that, it appears the BBC may have occasionally quashed programs talking about said problems - or any other persons accusing other persons of said crimes - as they felt the evidence wouldn't stand up. And so the arnchair critics rounded on the BBC. Then they do broadcast a report on the subject, and the armchair critics roundly criticise the BBC again - not, you understand, because the program named names or anything, but it allowed other people, on other news channels and on social media, to make allegations that were then shown to be false.
So what does the UK Chatterati Establishment do after this?
The answer is obvious - you howl for the new BBC Director General, in the job for only 54 days, to fall on his sword, because clearly he is the only person responsible for the whole mess over the last 20 years*. Clearly. As everyone knows, a Director General edits every program ever put out, and recruits every bad apple in the organisation, including those before he was ever in the post.
Where are all the people who were around over the last 20 yaers then, who may be more to blame, you may ask? Tut, you naive paduan - the old adage of the endgame of a crisis - absolve the guilty, fire the innocent and promote the uninvolved - shows itself to be true again, in spades.
Alternatively, you may just - if you were a tad sceptical - be thinking this has all the hallmarks of an establishment trying to protect itself. Perish the thought that it may in fact be others who are muddying the waters here for their own ends. One is reminded of Anthony Trollope's reasons for writing The Way We Live Now, about the greed and corruption in the Establishment some 150 years ago:
Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.
And where will the truth eventually out itself in all this? I'd lay odds on bets it will be on Social Media long before it gets to the Olde Meedja. Reading and watching the Olde Meeja going in for the feeding frenzy and f*cking over the scapegoat, while skippng over the causes of the scapegoating, you realize they are essentially morally and intellectually f*cked. Fact Free analysis at its finest.
(Update 2 days later - actually its not Fact Free Analysis, its more accurately termed Furious Fact Fudging Analysis - being economical with facts here, being over generous there, adding a few spurious ones - to build the picture you want. Anyway, there seems to have been quite a strong public response on Twitter et al - outside the Olde Meedja of course - to get back on track with the Real Issues again. And BBC'ers who may just have had more to do with this episode are now being stood aside. The Crisis Management Thesis above says they will be absolved, let us watch and see)
*And then whine about his payoff, conveniently forgetting that if he hadn't fallen on his sword then others more involved may have had to....(and that he would have got it if he had waited to be fired, which was in no-one's interest. Lesson for the future is never to do the honourable thing....)
Sunday, November 11. 2012
How best to mark Remembrance Day?
Having just watched the ceremony on the BBC, it occurred to me that the "Great and the Good" who were giving the eulogies and laying the wreaths were exactly the same sort of "Great and the Good" who sent the young men (and these days women) to die, and it then occurred to me that this was a sort of official ceremonial whitewash of their past sins. Maybe a lot more of the people who actually fought, and a lot less of the Great and the Good should be present?
And maybe a bit more of Siegfried Sassoon and "Dulce et Decorum est" and a bit less on the honour, glory etc etc....
Reminds me of Erich Maria Remarque's book "All Quiet on the Western Front" where the soldiers decide that in future all politicians who want to start a war have to enter a bullring and fight each other, rather than sending young men to fight. Or at least be on the front lines, as the Ancient Greeks demanded.
Monday, November 5. 2012
I attended a preview of Channel 4's "Dispatches" program today, filming a Delphi technique simulation of the 48 hours after a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear installations (the screening was for bloggers, so the show can be pre-hoopla'ed of course - its on at 8pm tonight, FYI ). The Grauniad sums up the simulation scenario and outcome quite well:
It was interesting to me on 2 levels:
Firstly, for years we have run business simulations and business games, which spun out of these sorts of military simulations, which were themselves developed during World War 2 and refined during the Cold War. It was fascinating watching the military/political strategic game being played as the stakes are somewhat higher.
Secondly, the method used here for the simulation - it was essentially the "Delphi" technique where experts form the teams simulating the various players - Israel, USA, Iran and others. Works very well if its a well structured simulation, with good behand the scenes data collection and background briefings, and well refereed.The downside of the Delphi technique for business gaming is if everyone is too similar to each other (all the senior management from one particular company, for example) as "groupthink" emerges, and "bad" outcomes often cannot be easily imagined for a whole host of reasons, if "bad" impacts the participants.
In my opinion I saw this happening here, as the scenario outcome was the best case outcome for Israel. Not surprising as it was carried out by INSS, the Israeli Institute for Strategic Studies, and all the participants were Israeli experts. Typically, these sorts of games should be played with a varied list of participants, and even better with 3 forced scenario outcomes - best, worst, and an intermediate, and then one looks at the "what do you have to believe" for each outcome.
As an aside, it also said something to me about the Meedja today - I have pretty much stopped watching TV for news and analysis. I wish more current affairs news could be presented like this was, half an our of concerted fact and deep, often uncomfortable, unsanitised analysis. It was half an hour long, and looked at the issue in good depth from a number of angles - not just the simulation, but looked at how people in Israel and Iran may react, and how that may force the rational realpolitik out of a government's hands. Compare that to much of the "zero fact" stuff that passes for analysis on TV these days - either a presenter interrupting all the (carefully selected opposing position) pointyheads if they utter a statement longer than a soundbite, or the pointyheads opining sans data over each other in a babble, or a programme with some wholesome presenter or another tramping up and down picturesque scenery, but the content so dumbed down and spun out to hit the lowest common denominators.
Sunday, July 29. 2012
Last year in June we called the Olympic ticketing system a game theory scam, it was clearly designed to maximise price per seat sold, and play on Olympic fervour to hopefully get all the bums on faux-shortage priced seats - but we never guessed that they would take it to its (il)logical conclusion and price the public out (and have a shut-down-whenever-tickets-were-supposedly- available ticketing system ) while handing out huge amounts of the best tickets to the Sponsors and the rest of the Olympic "Family" for free, to squander at their leisure (the game theory of handing over huge amounts of these most precious temporary goods for free is absolutely incredible). Unfortunately things have come home to roost, as those best tickets are precisely the ones most visible by the absence of bums on them. Lord Sebastian Coe, LOCOG (London Olympic Organising wotsit), says that only 8% of tickets are owned by sponsors, and the public have 75% of them, and that the venues are "stuffed to the Gunwales".
Sadly for him, many of the venues are very visibly (as in 24/7 TV visibly) far, far less than 75% full (its typically only the gunwales that are stuffed), and anyway 75+8 does not = 100%, making us wonder where the other tranche of 17% of all tickets are (Mind, you, given their accuracy at budgeting for the Olympics I'd not be surprised if LOCOG thought 75+8 did equal 100). Now according to LOCOG itself, in the vast majority of the venues, at least one-fifth of seats are reserved for sponsors, officials, the media and the "Olympic family". In the most popular sessions, such as the opening ceremony and the 100m final, the proportion is closer to half so between "Family" and Sponsors - that's probably 25% accounted for, but by my reckoining many those events are far more than 25% empty.
But lest we forget, the Official Sponsors have put in about £1.8bn of a c £13bn spend, the British taxpayer is footing the rest of the bill - some £11.2 bn, or c £500 per taxpayer, i.e. about 80% of the bill. By my calculation that means the average British taxpayer has pre-paid for quite a lot of tickets already, never mind being asked to pay again for them! And its not that people still wouldn't pay for tickets - many are desperate to get in to seee events they couldn't get tickets for, (competing athletes were not even given tickets for their own families, which shows just where they rank in the Olympic "Family") but there are just no tickets available, despite all these empty seats. The result is huge numbers of frustrated Brits who couldn't (and still can't) get tickets, and huge numbers of empty seats. Last week LOCOG bussed in the Army because they screwed up on security, this week they are bussing in the troops to sit in the empty seats (see pictures here)
Anyway, this being Sunday the muse is upon me, so with humble apologies to Pete Seeger I offer this ditty in the spirit of the Broadside (not Broadsight) ballads of yore:
Where have all those tickets gone?
While the athletes will do their best to make the actual Olympics Games as exciting and inspiring as ever, I think this Olympics (TM) has been the one where the iron claw of commercial interest has not even bothered to put on the velvet glove (unless you count the opening ceremony, that is). Its almost a replay of the the private gain, public loss strategy so beloved once - but the world has wised up a bit to that one since 2008.
Update - as @gpieterz points out, the ticketing has not been "freely commercial" enough, ie there is no incentive for those given freebie tickets to recycle them by selling them. I guess this makes the Olympic Game Theory board a sub-optimal combination of Cronyism, Commercial Profit Maximisation and crude "Let the Taxpapyer pay" optima. What they failed to see was that if you sub-optimise for your own benefit in a country with a free press, sophisticated media, and whose citizens have recently bailed out other "we profit/you pay" models, and paid a lot of money towards funding you, you run the risk of a major issue breaking out all around you. Adam Smith was missing from the Opening Ceremony "Potty History Of Britain Show", which is a shame, as he noted c 300 years ago that "The class power of wealth and big business makes the elite the "principal architects" of policy, "an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it"." Replace Oppress by "Rip Off" and I think we have it.)
(1) Well officially the public have 75%, as those empty seats testify...not. See point above on c20% for the "Family" and venues being more than 25% empty. There are apparently 100,000 tickets still for sale - good luck in getting one (assuming the ticketing system doesn't crash) that is not ludicrously overpriced.
(2) Well not every one, to be fair - some people pitched up, but he IOC grudgingly admits that many VIPS barely leave their hotels (I'm surprised there is not a Zil lane to Harrods). According to the Torygraph "Up to 70,000 of those tickets could be simply thrown away, The Daily Telegraph has learnt, because it is not cost-efficient for ticket agencies to return them, while another 50,000 premium tickets are being held back by foreign ticket agencies hoping to make a killing by selling them at grossly inflated prices at the last minute". (Update - arrested touts are selling tickets at the Olympics from foreign "Family" members.)
(3) OK, maybe some will go through ordinary banks - but how much will come into British coffers to help offset the taxpayers' losses? (See point 2 above)
(4) The Olympic budget ballooned from c £3bn to £11bn but we have apparently come in "under" budget at a mere c £9bn
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