peterbirks: (Default)
Now, here's an interesting thing. While the world and his wife/husband/non-specified sexual or non-sexual partner are looking at the "accidents" that the US navy seems to be having, mainly because it appears that its seaman, far from being lions led by donkey, don't really understand that sailing a destroyer is not just a matter of pointing it forward and hoping everyone else gets out of the way, there is a far more interesting, and potentially worrying, ongoing incident in the Atlantic near Las Palmas.

1) A ship catches fire:

Back on August 13th the bulk carrier Cheshire went adrift after a fire broke out in one of its five cargo holds, The vessel as a whole is thought to be carrying some 40,000 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Keep that amount in mind. The IRA pioneered the use of fertilizer bombs but, as CBS News observed, the most spectacular bombings worldwide use this stuff. To turn it into an effective bomb for terrorist purposes you have to "grind it down" – a slow process. But a "big" fertilizer bomb would come in at about 3,000lb. That's about 1.5 tons, give or take a bootload. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 used a truck loaded with 4,800lb, a couple of tons, of ammonium nitrate.

So, currently there's a fire on board a ship, possibly now in more than one hold, with 20,000 as much ammonium nitrate fertilizer as was used in the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. Let's suppose it's only 1% as effective because it hasn't been "prepared" (I reckon this is a highly optimistic assumption, by the way) it's still 200 times as big as the Oklahoma City bomb

 

2) The Spaniards fight back

Now, the Spanish authorities have put out a few releases stating that things are "under control", but that's about the most optimistic scenario. They can't put out the fire (it might even be getting hotter). Clearly, given the potential lethality of any exposure ("the largest non-nuclear explosion ever" was how one insider called it) to a blast, you either need to be very brave or very stupid to go anywhere near it. So, basically, we have no idea how much water is being poured on this vessel, and where from. Spain said that tugs were "cooling the vessel from a safe distance", but recent photographs are remarkably thin on the sea.

The AIS (which is how people like us can confirm where it is) has been off since August 15th. So, we *think* it is drifting away from land, but we don't really know for sure. What we do know is that this is a problem with no easy solution. As soon as the fire broke out Las Palmas port responded to a request for the vessel to be brought to land so that the fire could be put out with a curt "fuck off". Basically you can't let this ticking time bomb anywhere near land. And if it isn't near land, it's not easy to fight a fire on a large ship that's drifting and un approachable because of the heat and the danger.

3) What might happen

There is, believe it or not, a historical precedent for this – after a fashion.

The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City. It was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port), her cargo of approximately 2,100 metric tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities. It killed at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department.

The fire attracted spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were at a safe distance. Eventually, the steam pressure inside the ship blew the hatches open, and yellow-orange smoke billowed out. This color is typical for nitrogen dioxide fumes. The unusual colour of the smoke attracted more spectators. Spectators also noted that the water around the docked ship was boiling from the heat, and the splashing water touching the hull was being vaporized into steam. The cargo hold and deck began to bulge as the pressure of the steam increased inside.

At 09:12 the ammonium nitrate reached an explosive threshold from the combination of heat and pressure. The vessel then detonated, causing great destruction and damage throughout the port. The explosion sent a 15-foot wave that was detectable nearly 100 miles off the Texas shoreline. The blast flattened nearly 1,000 buildings on land. The Grandcamp explosion destroyed the Monsanto Chemical Company plant and resulted in ignition of refineries and chemical tanks on the waterfront. Falling bales of burning twine from the ship's cargo added to the damage while the Grandcamp's anchor was hurled across the city. Two sightseeing airplanes flying nearby had their wings shorn off. 10 miles away, people in Galveston were forced to their knees. People felt the shock 250 miles away in Louisiana. The explosion blew almost 6,350 US tons (5,760mt) of the ship's steel into the air, some at supersonic speed. Witnesses compared the scene to the fairly recent images of the 1943 Air Raid on Bari and the much larger devastation at Nagasaki.

Legal actions continued for a decade.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_disaster

Should the Cheshire blow up at a distance of 150nm from land, we can hope that it will be a spectacular mushroom cloud and nothing more, but there's still 20 times as much on board as caused the Texas City disaster. It could cause a tsunami. So we just have to hope that it doesn't start drifting back towards shore and that it does't explode. 'Cos if it does I reckon it might be a big story indeed.

peterbirks: (Default)
The latest opinion polls have led to a strengthening in the pound. With two polls showing a double-digit lead again for the Conservatives, those who should know better are talking of a 100+ majority.
But let's look at the trends within particular polling methods.

ComRes's last three polls have been:
44:34
47:35
46:34

ICM's have been:
46:34
45:34
45:34

SurveyMonkey's have been:
42:38
44:38
44:36

Opinium's have been:
43:36
43:37
45:35

Meanwhile, YouGov's have been rather constant at 42:38

So, even over the past 10 days, all the pollsters seem to have the Conservative vote as fairly solid, and the Labour vote either flat or increasing slightly. The situation remains: which pollsters do we believe? Or, alternatively, how many 18 to 34 year olds will turn out tomorrow? 50% (2015) or 64% (referendum) or even more?
With about 70% of this demographic favouring Labour and only 16% voting Conservative, a 15pp increase in turnout would make something like a 3pp difference in the result (which, coincidentally, roughly reflects the difference between the predictions of ICM and YouGov).
I'm going to nail my colours to the mast here and say that my personal feeling is that YouGov has got it right.

Now, Nate Silver wrote an interesting article earlier this week entitled "Are the polls skewed?"
Silver debunks the myth that the polls always underestimate the result because of "shy Tories". He doesn't deny that there are shy Tories; what he points out is that they are only one factor.
He also points out that, although the Conservatives have outperformed the polls 6 times out of the last 7 elections (but only 12 of the last 19), the pollsters might have overcompensated for this. Now, when you work out that the Conservatives have not really outperformed the polls since polls came into being, and that in the past 10 elections when the Conservatives were in front leading up to the election, they *underperformed* the polls in six of them, any assumption that the Conservatives will outperform the polls again is based on very dodgy foundations.
Silver also points out that the pollsters have come up with different reasons for poll misses at different elections. In 2010 they blamed a late swing away from the LibDems. In 1997, 2001 and 2005 they blamed their overestimation of the Labour victory on a low turnout.
As Silver rather pointedly asks "Could it really be a coincidence that all these different errors in all these different elections just so happened to underestimate Conservatives?"
The important point is, the pollsters have "learnt" from their mistakes in 2015, but they have not all learnt the same thing. It could be an overcompensation, it might be spot on.

Anyhoo, for good or evil, I'm going with the tendency to overcompensate and the fact that the Conservatives are ahead to conclude that most of the pollsters have overestimated the Conservative vote, perhaps by 2pp, and underestimated the Labour vote by the same amount. That puts us in the YouGov ballpark of 42:38.

What result does that give us?
Well, it gives my spreadsheet the following:
Cons 327
Lab 242
LibDems 12
SNP 46
PC 3
Green 1
Speaker 1
NI 18
... for an overall majority of a thumping 4.

I always find it funny when politicos "like" anything I post when it supports their party. This is nothing to do with the validity of the analysis -- they just like the result and don't really care how I came by it. if the same methodology had come up with a different result, they would like the methodology less. Go figure.

Now this comes with an important caveat. I'm inserting a big differential in the LibDem vote, not as I originally planned because of Remain vs Leave (that is still there, but muted) but in terms of seats which were LibDem in 2010 and can be won back again, or seats that were won by LibDems in 2015 anyway. If this does not transpire, LibDems could shrink to 6 seats and the Conservative majority would climb to 16.

Now, I am perfectly aware that when I get this wrong, there will be no shortage of people telling me why I got it wrong. That's what always happens in the FX markets and the stockmarkets. It makes one amazed that there aren't more millionaires out there. Everything is obvious after the event. But if you didn't make money on it, I'd have to ask why you waited until afterwards to say why it was obvious.

So I've gone even madder. here are some predictions. These are not the same as my bets. My bets are all about value and I don't think I have had a single bet at shorter than 4/7 (two bets, Lab to win Vauxhall and Lab to win Rhondda).

In Scotland Con to gain:
Perth
Aberdeen South
Angus
Berwickshire Roxburgh & Selkirk
Dumfries & Galloway
Moray
Ochil and South Perthshire
West Aberdeenshire

Lab to gain from Con
Bedford
Bolton West
Bootle
Brighton Kemptown
Bury North
Croydon Central
Derby North
Morley and Outwood
Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport
Weaver Vale

Con gain from LibDem
Possibly Carshalton -- very close to call

Lab gain from LibDem
Possibly Sheffield Hallem -- very close to call

My own bets (when not mentioned above) and which I haven't written off as doomed (i.e., I still stand by them)
Cons to win Birmingham Northfield
Lab to win Halifax
Lab to win Wakefield
Lab over 218.5
Lab over 177.5
Con under 399.5
Con under 370.5
Con under 337.5
Turnout 60-65

Written off bets
Cons to win Tooting
Cons to win Ynys Mon
Cons to win Cardiff South
Cons to win Hove
LibDems to win Bradford East
LibDems to win Birmingham Yardley
LibDems to win Bermondsey (still holding out an irrational hope that Simon Hughes might buck the odds).


Final seat predictions again:
Cons 327
Lab 242
LibDems 12
SNP 46
PC 3
Green 1
Speaker 1
NI 18
Overall majority - 4

peterbirks: (Default)
 Thoughts on a General Election - Week Six:
Although we've had quite a lot happen in the last seven days, there hasn't been any particular change of trend, strategy or competence.
Labour has eased McDonnell out of the limelight, presumably because they think the holes in Labour's numbers are now their weak point. Once again, a smart move on Labour's part.
Corbyn has been eased into the picture with consummate skill. If you had predicted at the start of this campaign that in the final week he would be sitting in front of Peston, telling him that he would keep his allotment if he became PM, I doubt that many would have believed you. Semiologically, this is classy stuff. The underpinning point here is that no chap who owns an allotment *and plans to keep it even if he wins* could possibly be a threat to the British way of life. Genius.
Meanwhile the Conservatives have more problems than you can shake a stick at.
1) They have refocused away from "strong and stable in the national interest" into claiming to be the best party to deliver a strong Brexit. Unfortunately the "firm on Brexit" line doesn't really work. The LibDem's abject failure to make "Remain" an electoral issue should have been the clue. The voter sees Brexit as something he or she wants the new government to get on with; arguing about who is going to do it better is not really a vote-winner. It's even less of a vote-winner when the only people we have seen on either side who look like they might be really good at it are in the Labour Party.
2) What can one say about May? Even today she was responding to a question with the homily "What we have made absolutely clear is...." presumably without realizing that beginning an answer with this is on a par with "you are feeling sleepy, you are feeling sleepy..." . There's been little strategy and, more importantly, woeful delivery. I don't like to try to read people's minds, but I strongly suspect that even the longest-living, lifelong-loyal Conservatives are going "Gawd, this is embarrassing". It's like those maths lecturers at svchool or college who were so hopeless at social skills that they would spend the entire lesson/lecture talking to the blackboard while writing up equations which the class copied down. You never heared a word he said because his chin was in his chest and he mumbled.
3) UKIP seems to have imploded to about 3%. Curiously, I do not think this will make much difference. It might save a few seats for Labour in that the Conservatives will be unable to slip through "on the rails".
4) LibDems utterly irrelevant. The attempt to mobilize the Remainers just did not work. Half of them had become "let's make the best of it" and two thirds of the 20% left seem to be supporting Labour.

Can Labour win (i.e., form the next government)? I don't think so. Nothing is impossible, but for them to form the next government I think they need three non-correlated events to coincide:
(a) a continuation of the trend of the past three weeks rather than a pause,
(b) for the YouGov assessment of the youth turnout to be right, and for the ICM assumption to be wrong,
(c) Labour doing what the Conservatives did in 2015 -- getting the votes where it matters.

Party workers don't like hard-headed analysis. Because of their emotional investment, they think in terms of "reception on the doorstep". The fact that the pollsters have less than a great track record (despite their protests to the contrary in recent months) serves only to reinforce their belief that "it's not what I'm sensing on the street" has strong statistical validity. It doesn't.

Can the Conservatives win a bigger majority?
It's beginning to look difficult. It keeps coming down to Labour successfully harnessing the youthful vote *in the right places*. It's no fucking use in safe Conservative seats or safe Labour ones. You could have every drinker and eater around Brixton market's Tapas Bars on a Friday evening swearing that they will vote and it won't matter a toss. What are the youngsters going to do in the marginals?
If Labour fail in this, then the Conservatives might, just might, squeak a slightly bigger majority. But their efficiency last time was very high. That is what sets the bar in 2017. The Conservatives don't just have to pick up the votes efficiently, they have to do it even more efficiently than they did last time. A big ask.

I've put numbers for the UK in, plus numbers for the latest polls specific to Scotland and Wales.

Latest prediction
Cons 331
Lab 239
LibDem 8
SNP 49
PC 3
Green 1
Speaker 1
NI 18

Cons Majority of 12.
peterbirks: (Default)
Thoughts on a General Election: Week 5.

The fallout from the "let's raid Granny's home for everything bar £100k" policy generated one of the most abject u-turns in campaign history. Even David Butler termed it "unprecedented" and I reckon he's covered more UK General Elections than anyone else alive.
And it will be too late. As YouGov's poll showed, the so-called "dementia tax" is now stuck in the voters' minds. It's almost as if the Conservatives sat down to try to work out the worst kind of typically Corbyn proposal possible, and then chucked it in their own manifesto.
The impact on the opinion polls was immediate and significant. A "wobble" threatened to become a stroke. A lead of 19pp was down to 5pp in only three weeks. For the first time it was being seriously hypothesized that Labour could get the most seats.
Even Conservative supporters have been calling it "the worst Conservative campaign in living memory". It's probably up there (or, rather, down there) with Churchill's in 1945, which made similar errors and which treated the Labour opposition with a similar scare strategy.
And yet, at 43% to 38% we would still see a Conservative majority. But, probably fatally for Theresa May, it would be hardly any larger than the one achieved in 2015.
The bomb attack in Manchester should have worked in favour of the Conservatives, but Labour had every opportunity to exploit it. They only had to hammer home (a) the 20,000 cut to the police force and (b) that Corbyn had questioned it at the time.
But this seems to be an election of attempted suicides. Corbyn chose instead to focus on how the west must bear part of the blame -- sorry, *responsibility* -- because of its actions in the past. As with the care home cost debacle on the Conservative side, and once again apparently beyond the with of the Party leadership and most of its supporters, the truth of an analysis is irrelevant. What matters is how well it plays with wavering voters and how it will be treated by the other side.
May being abroad, mixing with world leaders, is also something that should work in favour of the Conservatives. Certainly Blair would have been milking it for all it was worth, looking as statesmanlike as possible and "above" the party political fray. The adjective "presidential" was not an insult when it came to Blair. it was how he worked and he was successful at it.
But May is beginning to look significantly second-rate. And her team looks second-rate. They don't seem to have their finger on the pulse of the nation;
Corbyn's team is in places beyond fifth rate. But McDonnell has turned himself into a friendly reassuring uncle. I wouldn't be surprised if he brought out a pipe, because this is straight out of the Harold Wilson playbook of 1963. And there is some talent in the Labour Party (notably Keir Starmer and -- I am biased here, my own MP Heidi Alexander) . Of course, most of that talent resigned because they thought Corbyn was electoral suicide. What we have got instead is not electoral suicide per se, as what would be elected suicide, because the financial promises are (a) unsustainable (b) disingenuous and (c) gambling on most voters not understanding simple financial facts (such as, if you borrow money to buy an asset, it is still borrowed money; having the asset does not stop it being so).
I assume that there is talent tucked away in the Conservative Party, but I haven't seen much evidence of it in this campaign.
Current seat predictions as of latest poll:
Cons 334, Lab 236, LibDem 10, SNP 47, PC 3, Green 1, Speaker 1, NI 18.
peterbirks: (Default)
 62-year old Anthony Horowitz has said that in recent times he has become "more guarded, more careful and more discreet". All of us old white guys are the same. I hesitate to open my mouth outside the house any more. Our world has become a miserable one of being frightened to talk in case we say the wrong thing, even though we mean no harm. The intolerant Stalinism of youth takes no prisoners.

Background:
Horowittz's (I think, reasonable) point was that Bond (as written by Fleming) was an upper-class Empire colonial. Elba, thought Horowitz, was not right for Bond as Fleming invented him. However, the phrase generated accusations of racism. Horowitz apologized to Elba and Elba was gracious rather than rude in accepting it.
Subsequently, Horowitz wanted to feature a black protagonist in a new novel. An editor in the US warned him off doing this, effectively saying that white people could not create black characters (we are here entering the world of cultural appropriation, and the feeling by people that those not in their own social history are incapable of writing "genuine" characters). As Horowitz observed, that presumably means all of his characters in future have to be 62-year old white Jews. The nature of fiction-writing itself has been annihilated by a US editor.
From my own point of view,the problem is slightly different. But I am not alone.
As people age, their linguistic "free recall" deteriorates. You forget names, you can't get the right word, even though you know you know it. What also happens is that names you learnt later in life disappear faster than names you learnt early in life. And words you learnt later in life also disappear -- get harder to remember.
A few months ago I found myself unable to remember the words "Down's Syndrome". I could remember the world "mongol", because that was the word used to describe someone with Down's Syndrome when I was a child. I first heard the term "Down's Syndrome" when I was about 16, because I remember having to ask what it was.
Anyhoo, I was now in the situation of trying to describe an actor in a TV series without being able to remember the "right" terminology. This was solely because the synapses in the brain, the connections, age just like the rest of your body. Free recall gets weaker. But the synapses, the connections formed when you were aged 0 to 16, they last longer.
Another time, I found myself thinking of the concept of "mixed race" and, once again, the phrase that came first to mind was "half-caste". because, once again, this was the phrase used in my youth. I can't remember when I first heard the term "mixed race", but I was probably at University, mixing with the middle classes *en masse* for the first time.
The "polite" term for people of colour was "coloured" "Negro" was okay and the "n' word was rude. There was the National Association of Coloured Peoples and Martin Luther King referred to "the Negro". "Black' as the de rigeur word came in in the late 1960s.
The word "spastic" was the norm (remember it was called "the Spastics Society" at the time. I did now know the words "cerebral palsy" or "spina bifida"). But the terms "spaz" and "mong" were insults. They were rude.
As recently as a decade ago the term, "third world" could be used without insult. Then it became "North" and "South". Today it's called (somewhat inaccurately) "emerging markets".
Other terms that did not exist before I was 18 include "African American", "Native American" (we just said "Red Indian").
Now, my point here is, I might find myself unable to recall the "correct" word or phrase, but I would still know that a new phrase had supplanted it. But someone in their 80s might refer to "coloureds" not because he or she is a racist (although of course they might be!) but because that is the word they used when they were younger. Learning new words gets harder and harder.
So what if that starts happening to me? I start using "unacceptable" words because those are the ones hard-wired into my aging brain. It's not my attitudes that are locked in the past, it's my linguistic capacity.
Youth seems unable to comprehend this, and, by god, if you should happen to use an old-fashioned word, you soon know it from that smug purse-lip smile that they deploy -- meaning "without saying "look how enlightened I am compared to that old fool".
So, far easier to avoid mixing with such people, so that you don't risk the silent mockery.

peterbirks: (Default)
 Election thoughts: week four.

Last week's trends have continued. The Conservative manifesto was, well, odd. It seemed as if its main aim was to piss off the core Conservative demographic.
The thing that will really hurt the Conservatives from their manifesto is not so much the triple lock (of which,more later) but the new policy on paying for care.
It matters not that the current system is unsustainable and that something needs to be done -- the statement that anyone with more than £100k in assets *including their home* will have to pay for their care, to be claimed back from the sale of the home on death, strikes at the heart of middle-income conservative philosophy. And I'm not sure what planet the Conservative leadership is on, but more than £100k is not a penalty on London and the South-east; TBH, people like me are shrugging our shoulders already and accepting £50k a year care-home costs either for our parents or for ourselves.
But in the conservative rural heartlands, where properties come in at around £200k to £300k, this will be an entirely new cost.
Now, let's be real here, it is not a *tax*. The removal of benefits is never a tax. But it is a *cost*. And it's a cost which will hit those more naturally disposed to vote Conservative.
And, no, I can't work out the thinking either.
As for the removal of the 'triple lock', this is, if anything, even more stupid, although it is unlikely to cost as many votes. Why is it stupid? Because it gets a lot of negative publicity for virtually no likely gain. The remaining "double-lock" is likely, for the next decade, to result in pensions increasing at exactly the same rate as they would have under the triple-lock. (See graph from Institute of Fiscal Studies below).

On the Labour side; well, it doesn't matter if the numbers don't add up, provided you present them with a sense of sincerity and gravitas, rather than swivel-eyed mania. And McDonnell is good at this. He sounds reasonable and sympathetic. It's not the substance of what you say, it's the way in which you say it.

On the LibDem side, well, it just gets worse. The phrase "it's the economy, stupid", goes back a long way when it comes to fighting and winning elections. But one would have thought that, this time at least, the LibDems would have benefited from being a "single-issue" party -- that of Remain.
But it's failed, and looks to be failing very badly. The soft Remainers who now want to get on with making the best of Brexit are splitting roughly according to the opinion polls (proportionately a few more Labour and LibDem, a few less Con and UKIP,but nothing radical). Meanwhile the hardline Remainers (some 22% of the electorate) seem to be splitting two-thirds to Labour and one-third to LibDem (with a very few going to the Conservatives and one dementia sufferer in Norfolk going to UKIP). This is just dreadful for the LibDems, and their only hope now for a decent showing is to focus on those few seats that they might regain after losing them in 2015.

Now, what good news is there for the Conservatives? A little -- just as Labour can suffer a serious hit on their national popularity and still come out with 150 seats, so they can get a serious boost to their popularity without gaining a lot of seats. So, even with the most recent opinion polls (i.e., the ones in the newspapers tomorrow, Sunday) my prediction for the result still runs at a Con majority of about 60. See below.

Con 353: Lab 217, LibDem 10, SNP 46 PC 4, Green 1 Speaker 1 Northern Ireland 18.

peterbirks: (Default)
 What is becoming increasingly clear is that Labour is having the best of the General Election campaign, but that this is at the expense of UKIP and the LibDems. The Conservative vote is holding up. This could have two paradoxical effects:
1) It won't make a great deal of difference to Labour seats if they get 28% or 31%. The Conservative majority could vary from, say, 60 to 110, while Labour seats would shift from, say, 160 to 185.
2) But that 30% barrier is important in another way. because if Labour gets 31% this time, Corbyn supporters can say that he performed better than Ed Miliband did in 2015.  Far from leading Labour to political destruction, Corbyn and his backers could argue, with some validity, that his view is more popular than was Miliband's.
There is a paradox here, because it could be argued with equal possible validity that the strength of the Labour vote is down to two possible explanations:
a) National: The Labour manifesto is having an effect; the Corbyn campaign is getting through
b) Local: People are voting for Labour candidates who are telling voters that "look, there's no chance of Corbyn forming the next government. But vote for me and I'll be one of the ones getting rid of him"
c) the true position almost certainly being a combination of the two.
That could lead to the farcical situation whereby a person who votes for an anti-Corbyn Labour MP achieves the aim of electing that person, only for that vote also to be taken on a "national' percentage scale as a support for Corbyn's Labour, making it far harder to unseat Corbyn. Anti-Corbyn Labour MPs want to win themselves, but want a national disaster that makes a Corbyn leadership untenable. And many Labour voters probably find themselves in the same boat.

Andy Ward this morning referred to Theresa May as "an empty shirt", and I don't think that's an inaccurate analysis. Home Secretaries are rarely "top tier" (the last before May to become PM was Callaghan, while the last one to become a good PM was Asquith, who was HS from 1892 to 1895) and, let's face it, her coming to the leadership was like something out of Lemony Snicket.

As such the Conservatives are adopting the best strategy -- keep everything tightly under control and reduce the number of even controlled media appearances as much as possible. Northern Ireland was a great place for her to campaign. A good excuse for high security and not a Conservative or Labour Party supporter in sight. I wouldn't be surprised if she popped up next in Gibraltar or the Shetlands. That this is infuriating Labour supporters is just more evidence that this is the right tactic.
As ever, Labour party supporters think that it's about winning the argument, whereas in fact it's about winning the election. Elections in the era of The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Eurovision and "Cash In The Attic" are not the same as elections when Nye Bevan could windbag to 50,000 people and no-one would notice the lack of substance in the (unrecorded) speech.

But Labour can't try to beat the Conservatives at this game. As such, they are probably right to focus on "issues" -- especially ones that appeal to people who don't understand the hard facts of economics. If the Conservatives are the mum and dad saying "it's tough out there, the world is full of enemies, but we must hang together and hunker down as a family", then Labour is saying that the street outside is a wonderful place and let's all go to the sweet shop every day -- that bloke who lives in the rich house on the hill can pay. If a kid points out that there are 500 streets out there and the rich bloke at the top of the hill is unlikely to want to pay for all of them -- and might indeed fuck off to a Caribbean island if we try to make him, well, we can always wheel out Diane Abbott to say that the total cost would only be 6/6d.

For the LibDems, well, a disaster at the moment. No traction. It looks like 80% of the population have shrugged their shoulders over Brexit and said "we might as well get on with it". The UKIP supporters are drifting to Labour or Conservative (even if they came from LibDem in the first place) and the UKIP voters that arrived from Labour appear to be drifting to the Conservatives -- a fundamental shift that probably would not have taken place had UKIP not existed. If the LibDems start shuffling along at 8% and UKIP drops back to 5% (greens on, say, 2%) then we will be close to one of the most binary elections since 1959.

That, however, ignores Scotland which, much as some of would like to, we cannot. The SNP single-party state looks slightly vulnerable to a resurgent and individualistic Scottish Conservative Party. Just as there is a Labour Party in England that is surreptitiously (sometimes not so surreptitiously) anti-Corbyn, it seems plain that the Conservatives in Scotland are campaigning on a distinctly Scottish front. And it is working. On the downside for the SNP there could be a drop to 43 seats or so. More likely, I think, is 49-50 seats, with LibDems taking one and Conservatives taking five or six.

Current prediction is Con 374, Labour 187, LibDem 16, SNP 49, PC 4, Green 1, Speaker 1, NI 18. 


peterbirks: (Default)
Week Two of the campaign.

A day's silence did Labour and the LibDems no favours -- the quieter the campaign, the better it is for the Conservatives.
Whether or not the Diane Abbott error on LBC will harm the Labour campaign remains to be seen. But I don't think I am going out on a limb when I say that it is unlikely to have converted many to Labour from Don't Know.
The local elections seem to me to have advanced our knowledge of the way this campaign is going in six ways:
  1. Labour will hold up better in Wales than the opinion polls predict.
  2. The Conservatives will do well in Scotland, now being seen as the default anti-SNP vote in many once-solid-Labour seats. May has also adopted a deliberate "one-nation" campaign that doesn't just include Wales and Scotland, but embraces them. The Thatcher Conservative Party was quite simply Middle England and Basildon Man. It was the equivalent of Nixon and Reagan's "Sunshine Belt" strategy and Trump's "Rust Belt" strategy.
  3. May's campaign harks back to the Conservative campaigns in 1955 and, specifically, 1959. The main difference in Scotland of course is that the opposing side is now the SNP rather than Labour.
  4. UKIP is imploding and the Conservatives are the main beneficiaries.
  5. The LibDems haven't achieved a national "all remainers support us" breakthrough. But they don't need to, or even want to. UKIP in 2015 was quite specifically the only "Leave" party, but it did them no good. What the LibDems need to do is focus on heavily Remain seats that were LibDem up to 2015. That might, just might, get them into the 30s.
  6. My current (very tentative, because we've had no opinion polls for a few days and I haven't seriously broken down the council voting) gives Cons an overall majority of 66, Labour on 192 seats, LibDems on 31 and SNP on 45.

Later:
I've been through all the council results in Wales, Scotland and England, and some odd regional differences have appeared.
My conclusion from the regional breakdown is that it doesn't look great for the LibDems in England, and it looks slightly less bad for Labour. Indeed it looked to me that in England the Conservatives would in the main be accumulating votes where they didn't need them.
However, there's a physical band in "middle England", geographically rather than demographically, running from Derbyshire in the East Midlands down through Warwickshire and Birmingham, and into Worcestershire, that seems to be reflecting a particular Lab-to-Con shift. This permeates out slightly to Staffs, bits of Yorkshire and Lancashire. I may adjust my spreadsheet to give Cons a "skew" in this geography, while giving Labour a relative benefit (still an absolute decline, but a relative benefit) elsewhere in England.
Scotland looks better for the LibDems and okayish for the Conservatives.
Wales is looking better than expected for Labour. Plaid Cymru doing better, but probably not enough to pick up any extra seats.
Of course, general elections are very different beasts, and LibDems, as I say above, might well outperform in the right constituencies on the day -- but in past elections this has usually manifested itself in a couple of gains and just as many, if not more, disappointments at targets missed.
Conclusion. I'd mark down LibDems a bit from 31, push Labour up a fraction to 195, Cons flat at 358. But I'll put the geographical loading into the spreadsheet ( a slow job, I fear) to see what difference that makes.

Labour Party campaign addition and a bit of editorializing:
Robert Peston quoted one Labour candidate as follows:
"When I knock on doors I tell people they can vote for me if they like me and not have any fear of Jeremy becoming prime minister - because there is absolutely no chance of that" .
Corbyn was in Manchester tonight to celebrate the victory of Andy Burnham, but of Burnham himself there was no sight.
I received my campaign letter from Heidi Alexander today. She is the Labour candidate for Lewisham East, a staunch Remainer last year and a strong anti-Corbynite. Of the current leader there is no mention in her campaign letter. None.
Peston claims that Labour candidates see Corbyn as "toxic" and that they are adopting an almost LibDem strategy -- fighting as individuals who will represent their constituents locally as individuals.
The Heidi Alexander letter is almost unique in that in the body of the letter she not only omits to mention Corbyn, but she omits to mention the Labour Party. She signs it "Labour Candidate for Lewisham East", and the footer has "Vote Labour".
I don't think I am wrong in saying that all of this is, to say the least, unusual.
Perhaps Peston is wrong; perhaps Heidi Alexander is making a mistake and there's a mass of people out there waiting to sweep Corbyn and socialism to power. But my feeling is that what there is really is a small homogeneous block of mainly white middle-class people, working in academia, teaching, for charities, local government or the NHS, who are mistaking their own wishes and dreams for a national feeling. That small group could be responsible for leading Labour to a horrible defeat.

Conclusion:
All that said, Labour doesn't look to me as if it will melt down as far as some are predicting, and this could be spun into a Corbyn 'victory' of sorts. But any Labour candidates who are looking to win seem to want him nowhere near them. So we have the farce of Corbyn himself being shuttled into campaigning in either unwinnable seats or unlosable ones.
Last time round Labour made the "Echo Chamber" mistake. They aren't repeating that, thank goodness. It's more a matter of an "it isn't fair" campaign, It isn't fair that people picked up on Diane Abbott's incompetence. It isn't fair that the electorate don't get to see how wonderful Jeremy Corbyn really is. It isn't fair that the campaign is focusing on issues different from those which Corbyn supporters consider "important".
This is possibly true (in part). It isn't fair. But to go on about it begins to sound rather like whinging.
peterbirks: (Default)
I've been throwing in some preliminary numbers for the election. If I eliminate Scotland, Wales and NI as different regions requiring a different technique, and just focus on the 533 English constituencies, the latest polls indicate as a baseline C +6%, Lab -7%, UKIP -4% and LD + 5%.
However, applying this in a blanket fashion to all 533 constituencies would obviously be a mistake.
What I planned to do was to take the voting in the 2016 referendum and to "map" it onto the 2017 election (not as easy as it sounds because the constituencies were not precisely the same). For every percentage point that the referendum vote moved away from 52%:48% in the direction of "leave", I would add 0.7% to UKIP and subtract 0.7% from LD. Now, for want of a lack of certainty, I did not plan to map any pro- or anti-Leave skew to Lab or Con's vote in the forthcoming election. That might well be wrong, but I don't think it will be massively so.
It's taken me a couple of hours to put together the "database". I'll update in future on how I see this affecting the predicted result. And, of course, I'm yet to start on Scotland or Wales, where it's such a tough call to design an algorithm that I will probably just analyze it seat by seat.
In case I haven't expressed this sufficiently clearly, let's take a hypothetical "Remain", "Labour Held" seat which in 2015 voted:
20,000 Lab
16,000 Con
12,000 LD
5,000 UKIP
It voted 53:47 for Remain.
So our base result would be:
18,600 Lab
16,960 Con
12,600 LD
4,800 UKIP.
However, there's a 5 percentage point difference in favor of Remain from the national result in 2016. Applying the skew to the base result, we get:
18,600 Lab
16,960 Con
13,041 LD
4,632 UKIP
In this particular case, there would be no change, either as a result of the base swing or as a result of the fact that the constituency was pro-Remain. I'll have to go through each of the 533 seats (well, I'll have to design a function to tell the spreadsheet to do it and to highlight the changes in various colours, then to add up the totals! another couple of hours' work) to see how it might affect the final result.
peterbirks: (Default)
 This year I decided to list all of the new albums (or old albums that I no longer or had never possessed in physical form) I have downloaded, all of the films and TV series I have watched, and all of the books I have read.

I set myself some ambitious targets: 200 albums, 250 movies, 10 TV series and 60 books, divided 40 fiction to 20 non-fiction.

I also allowed myself a December 1st start, so I really had 13 months rather than 12 (part of the reason was that I still had a strange hankering to go to Las Vegas this December coming, although this of course depends on my health, my mum's health, and the State of the Union in 10 months' time).

 Anyway, I'm two months in, and I've been going OK. 17 albums,  28 movies, 16 books, of which seven were non-fiction. Mainly as a personal record, but also public, just in case anyone is interested, here it all is.

 The 'new' albums  were:

Skeleton Crew

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

2016

Random Access Memories

Daft Punk

2013

Album

Girls

2009

Heroes

David Bowie

1977

All The Young Dudes

Mott The Hoople

1972

New World Record

ELO

1976

Alone In The Universe

Jeff Lynne's ELO

2015

In The Now

Barry Gibb

2016

Mr Wonderful

Fleetwood Mac

1968

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac

1968

Puberty 2

Mitski

2016

Bury Me At Makeout Creek

Mitski

2014

A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead

2016

My Woman

Angel Olsen

2016

Retired From Sad, New Career In Business

Mitski

2013

Lush

Mitski

2012

Lodger

David Bowie

1979

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

David Bowie

1980

 Of these, Mitski's third and fourth albums have probably got the most airplay (Jeff Lynne and ELO have run her close).

 The films I''ve seen are: 

Sully

 

2016

Hell or High Water

 

2016

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve

2016

Anthropoid

Sean Ellis

2016

Don't Think Twice

Mark Berbigilia

2016

Other People

Chris Kelly

2016

Arq

Tony Elliott

2016

Free State Of Jones

Gary Ross

2016

Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford

2016

Denial

Mick Jackson

2016

La La Land

Damien Chazelle

2016

Resistance

Amil Gupta

2011

Safety Not Guaranteed

Colin Trevorrow

2009

Mustang

Turkey

2015

Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman

2015

Embrace Of The Serpent

 

2015

Stray Cats

 

1971

Stalingrad

Joseph Vilsmaier

1992

V/H/S

 

2013

Lesson Of The Evil

Takashi Miike

2014

Surrogates

Jonathan Mostow

2009

Bad Lieutenant

Werner Hersog

2009

Macbeth

Justin Kurzel

2015

Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone

Chris Columbus

2000

Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets

Chris Columbus

2001

Bad Timing

Nic Roeg

1980

Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban

Adolfo Cuaren

2004

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine

2013

 

Nothing a 10 out of 10, although some of these films were very good indeed. Sticking in my head as "really would like to see again" are "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "Macbeth".  "Arq" is an interesting piece of low-budget science fiction. Might give that another go.

 Non-fiction was:

Title

Author

Year

The Pity Of War

Niall Ferguson

1998

Anti Fragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

2012

Black Box Thinking

Matthew Syed

2015

The White Nile

Alan Moorehead

1960

The Year Of Reading Dangerously

Andy Miller

2014

The Subterranean Railway

Christian Wolmar

2006

War Of The World

Niall Ferguson

2006

All of which were worth reading. Niall Ferguson is going up in my estimation. He can be deliberately contrary, but his research is sound and his writing is solid without being boring. "The Year Of Reading Dangerously" is the only "light" book, and was very enjoyable.

 Fiction was:

The Luminaries

Eleanor Cattom

2013

Deptford Trilogy Book 2

Robertson Davies

1975

Timbuktu

Paul Auster

 

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco

 

Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets

JK Rowling

1998

Deptford Trilogy Book 3

Robertson Davies

1977

The Quarry

Iain Banks

2013

Harry Potter And ThePrisoner of Azkaban

JK Rowling

1999

A Possible Life

Sebastian Faulks

2013

 

And I'll probably finish Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire tonight.

Of these "The Luminaries" is easily the strongest. The Eco was the hardest work. The Deptford Trilogy I found less engaging than some people seem to. Harry Potters' "Azkaban" is very well written.

The TV series are:

Breaking Bad Season 3

12 episodes

Westworld Series 1

10 episodes

The OA

8 episodes

Sherlock 4

3 episodes

Victoria 1

8 episodes

Fleabag 1

6 episodes

 

Westworld and The OA stand out, with the former probably sneaking it. Sherlock 4 was rather disappointing. Fleabag had its moments, but was far less "revolutionary" than the critics claimed. 

 

I'll admit, it's only when you list the things that you've read/watched that you realize how much stuff you consume. Is it "wasted" time? I don't think so. Watching "Homes Under The Hammer" or "The Great British Bake Off" or "Rip Off Britain" or "Storage Hunters" is "wasted" time (albeit not unenjoyable). 

peterbirks: (Default)
 So May has clearly gone way beyond Miliband-lite in terms of economics and fiscal policy, way left of Blair and Miliband.
Have Corbyn and Ronald McDonnell succeeded in shifting the economic agenda towards interventionism in the same way that UKIP and the right of the Conservative Party have succeeded in shifting the social agenda towards protectionism?
Not really. I think that interventionism and protectionism (of which nationalism is merely an extreme example at the individual level) go hand in hand. The world is shifting away from the orthodox economic line of Reagan and Thatcher that "the markets know best" because, quite clearly, the markets have been shown to be wanting.
Since labour is a form of capital, free markets love free movement of labour. It reduces one capital expense. They hate interventionism because it stops the inevitable upward flow of wealth in an uncontrolled economy (as evidenced by the change in relative incomes between "ordinary" employees and the top 5% of earners since 1975).
The "let the markets do their job" advocates are really a busted flush because they assumed that making "ordinary" people better off in absolute terms (because of advances in technology) would make them happier. If they had looked at their own lives they would have realized that it wasn't the money that mattered so much as having more money than your rival.
We are entering an interventionist age (in Britain, marked by May's namecheck of Clement Attlee, support for workers on boards) and with interventionism will come protectionism. With protectionism will come nationalism and with nationalism will come restrictions on movement of labour.
That is how the apparent paradox of May appearing to shift to the left and to the right simultaneously resolves itself. They are both part of the same shift; we just choose to give them different labels.
peterbirks: (Default)
 Chronic pain is a strange thing. If I ever wondered why people went quiet during periods of sustained illness, well, I don't now. It's not a matter of wanting to be alone; it's just a matter of pain being so much to the forefront of your mind that you can't really be bothered with much else. 

As many of you know, because I have no compunction sharing stuff like this (bugger this stiff upper lip, crap), I've been suffering shoulder pain for just over three months now. So I reckon that qualifies as "chronic". It's nothing compared with the pain that many people suffer. Some (such as Prince) effectively die as a result of chronic pain. However, it's irritating because diagnosis is proving elusive, and that means prognosis is difficult. Also the pain is of varying types (skeletal, muscular; throbbing, dull ache) and is occasionally acute, because my shoulder also suffers restricted movement, and if I make the mistake of going beyond that range, I'm in agony for a few minutes.

But that's by the by. I'm not dead and I don't think I am dying.  What I have changed is my prorities. Basically I just pray for a reasonable night's sleep. Sometimes I wake up once (about 3am), and I need to roll around on the foam roller for about 15 minutes. For the rest of the time the sleeps is reasonable. That qualifies as a great night. The bad nights are disturbed sleep for about 90 minutes, have to get up, an hour of foam rollers etc etc, back to bed, awake again 90 minutes later. Eventually I get up in the morning feeling worse than when I went to bed the night before.

It doesn't make the nights much to look forward to. But (and I guess this is the point) it all goes to prove what we all secretly know anyway -- that happiness is relative. Those decent night's sleep when I wake up feeling refreshed and (for a while) almost pain-free, leave me almost ecstatic with joy. I'm the happiest man alive, I feel. And the bad times? Well, occasional feelings of despair, but they are only brief. I just tell myself that tomorrow might be better and that I am strong enough to get through this. It's a battle I am playing with pain, with "playing" being the operative word. I see no reason to let the bloody thing defeat me, even if it might make me less than 100%.

I've been referred to the muscular-skeletal department at Lewisham Hospital, and am awaiting an appointment. All the treatment that I have had thus far seems to have had random effects -- sometimes temporary relief (a few hours). I suspect any of the other changes have been independent of the osteopath and physiotherapist.

My hunch is that it's a combination of things in the GH and the AC shoulder joints -- arthritis, capsulitis, a torn rotator-cuff, whatever -- which is serving to make a diagnosis difficult because it isn't a single problem. Arthritis in the AC makes sense because of the weight training. Capsulitis in the GH is not that uncommon for people my age. This leads to inflammation, grinding, all the different kinds of pain, all of which can "come and go". I'm kind of hoping that an x-ray and a scan will at least help them define what the problem is. It's not so much a paucity of possible treatments as a plethora of them, with somethings working for some people and some things making it worse. Without an accurate diagnosis it really is punting in the dark.

Oh well, tonight is another night and tomorrow is another day.

peterbirks: (Default)
 The Food Programme on R4 at lunchtime was an interesting "single issue" take on the referendum with, I thought, a balanced look at the pros and cons.
One thing that struck me was that English farmers clearly depend on cheap east European labour. While the "establishment" warned that prices would rise, the Brexiteer made (I thought) the valid point that it was only economic to grow stuff like turnips and wheat because of cheap labour. It would be better for us to import it (he said) and focus on "added value" or "high margin" products.
The irony of this of course (this referendum is full of ironies) is that the guy on the Remain side was effectively arguing the importance of self-sufficiency in food (the "little Englander" approach) while the Brexiteer was arguing the benefits of global trade, and that "self-sufficiency" in food was an attitude that belonged to the second World War.
Although most farmers (understandably) were keen to remain, the programme fairly interviewed minority groups such as Scottish fishermen, who were elated at the prospect of departing. It also looked at the case of New Zealand, where subsidies disappeared overnight a few decades ago, causing dislocation and a refocusing away from sheep towards beef. But the net result was (eventually) positive.
That is the second obvious irony of the referendum is that those most likely to gain from Brexit are the British young (but they can't see it) while those most likely to lose are the old (and they certainly can't see it).
Already we've seen Carney say that the BoE will likely pump money into the economy (more QE), and cut interest rates. Osborne has effectively scrapped austerity economics. And now Ros Altman (pensions minister) has said that companies will not be pressured too hard to plug pensions gaps in the near future.
These statements, relatively unsurprising (I'd predicted three of them, and the fourth hadn't occurred to me) were what made many of the predictions of independent experts -- much cited by Remainers -- ludicrous; the scenarios made no allowance for government or BoE intervention.
peterbirks: (Default)
 I have found this referendum vote the hardest electoral decision in my life. My route to my eventual decision will not be so much an issue-related discussion as a philosophical one.

 

My feelings:

I love Europe

I am a free-trader

I am an economic liberal in the Gladstonian sense

I am a social liberal

I consider small companies to be the dynamic lifeblood of an economy

I consider large companies, in the main, to be position defenders that have nothing to do with free enterprise.

Regulation, as a default, is a bad idea. It is not always bad, but a strong case needs to be made for it.

Decisions made by committees are usually slow and more often than not wrong. If half the committee want to go in one direction and the other half want to go in another, "staying where you are" is not a compromise – it is a worse decision than the other two. Fudges eventually lead to a bigger disaster down the road.

 

Who I am

I am old

I am in London

I am probably a net beneficiary of being in the EU

 

The difficulties

1) This is a vote where the reason why you vote the way you vote can differ from the ostensible reason on the ballot box

2) This is a vote where people disagree on (a) what the vote is about (b) the permanence of any such decision and (c) the significance of such a decision.

 

What this means is that, even if I laid out my complete political, social, economic and personal positions, people on both sides would claim that the reasons I give are reasons why I should vote on "their" side. Now, you don't tend to get this in ordinary politics. If I said that I thought the economy was constructed to exploit the working class, that would hardly be pounced on by the conservatives as a reason to vote for them. Alternatively, if I said that the NHS was an inefficient bureaufuck that is only liked by people because it did a lot of good for their gran or prematurely born kid, or because it pays their wages, that would hardly be seized upon by Labour as a good reason to vote for them.

 

I began this campaign with the statement that I would probably end up voting "Remain", but with a heavy heart. Over the following 10 weeks the arrogance of the Remain side and their choice of campaign ground led me to shift my ground dramatically. A week or so ago I would perhaps have put the likelihood of me voting Leave at around 80%.

What put me off?

Smugness;

Mutual back-slapping humour that Remainers thought was an attempt to persuade the undecided but which was in fact just a way to make them feel even cleverer and more superior than they felt before, which led to ….

More smugness

A refusal to engage on genuine issues, resorting instead to "independent" analyses from interest groups that all benefit from EU membership.

Assertions that all Leavers were racists, Little Englanders, xenophobes, or, well, let's face it, not as intelligent as we Remainers are"

A refusal or inability to understand genuine concerns among people who liked Europe, liked immigrants, but disliked Brussels.

 

 

Perhaps shrewdly, the Remain camp seem in most cases to have realized that their mockery, smugness and sense of moral superiority was perhaps not the best way to persuade people on the fence such as myself. I seemed to see arguments which consisted mainly of two lines:

(a) the EU benefits the writer

(b) Everyone who is on the Leave side is a racist, a Little Englander and/or looking to return to a mythical 1950s.

 

Contrariwise, I began to read a significant number of rational, well-thought, arguments on the Leave side which reflected how I felt – that the EU was an out-of-date, impractical, over-large, over-bureaucratic, protectionist club that worked in favour of

a) employees of large organizations

b) senior executives in large organizations

c) politicians

d) research fellows

e) anyone who lives in Brussels

 

It worked to the detriment of

(a) small businesses, with insanities such as the working hours directive meaning that, if work had to get done, the net result was that people worked the extra hours anyway, but could not officially be paid for it.

(b) farmers in emerging markets outside of the EU

(c ) companies that could have developed trade with countries outside of the EU, but were never able to because the EU system of trade discouraged such development

(d) the young in Spain, the young in France, employees of small companies, the unemployed young.

 

As Mervyn King observed, it's possible that this vote is not as significant as we like to think. After all, come 2025, even if Leave wins:

But, let's look at what will not change:

We will still be in the European Economic Area or WTO

We will still be in NATO (and France won't).

We will still be in the UN, G8 and G20

We will still be in Europe.

We will still deal with Interpol and Europol

Travel to Europe will be as easy as it was before.

Human rights legislation will not vanish. The EU Convention and European Court of Human Rights are not part of the EU. Until parliament passes a new bill of rights for the UK, these will still apply, as will precedents already passed down to UK courts from Brussels.

We will not eject people from the UK. Under the Luxembourg compromise all those already in the UK are legally entitled to remain.

The NHS will not collapse. Indeed it could become easier to find qualified staff from non-EU countries.

 

So, as you say, with so much NOT changing, why are both sides making such a fuss?

For some, the belief is that the EU took seriously wrong turns when

(a) it renamed itself the EU, thus setting down a "mission statement" for what it thought the former EEC was really about

(b) it tried a back-to-front economically insane system of "single currency, separate treasuries", with results that we can now see (and which, by the way, many of the current Remainers singularly failed to predict).

(c) it decided to expand from a relatively homogeneous western European system to one that welcomed the ex-members of the Soviet bloc -- more for political reasons than economic common sense.

 

One thing that is beginning to seem plain to me is that Europeans living in Britain (and those born in Britain who now live in Europe)  are far more vehement Remainers than most others. In a way that is unsurprising; their pro-Europe instincts would lead them to be so. But their view must also be considered tainted for just this reason. Disinterested, they are not.

 

However, in Europe as a whole the enthusiasm for the project is falling. Only a small majority of voters in the EU look on it favourably (Pew Research Centre).

It is not a fanciful concept to say that, because the solidity of the EU as a concept (with or without Britain) is weakening, the EU at the moment needs Britain rather more than Britain needs the EU. Should Brexit win, it is not fanciful to see the Schengen agreement fall apart, the euro gradually disintegrate into first two currencies (hard euro and soft euro), then three, and then into a situation where it's like the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish kroners – a currency that shares a name but which is effectively a different currency. Either new notes will be printed or a grey market will develop with different currency ratios from the centrally dictated 1:1

Little wonder therefore that the concern on the matter is so great on the European mainland.

 

I see the EU as a sclerotic crony-capitalist system which favours big companies and big government -- discouraging small entrepreneurs by creating high barriers to entry. That has led to an economic bloc with a growth rate abysmally below most of the rest of the world, and an unemployment rate amongst those aged 18-25 that it should be ashamed of. It protects jobs that exists (but which gradually disappear anyway) and discourages capital providers from creating new ones.

 

This lack of dynamism is endemic to the EU. A new Europe of entrepreneurship could give young people the futures they deserve. This EU can only give the gerontocracy and employees of large/public corporations the wealth that they don't deserve.

 

So, I found myself leaning more and more to support the Leave. Every post I saw on Facebook or Twitter urging Remain was pushing me further towards voting Leave.

 

Now, although there is an irrational side to this response – I was reacting to the smug middle-class liberal certainty of, quite often, youth – there was also a rational side. What I desperately wanted was rational discourse that would persuade me of the benefit of voting "Remain", not single-line bollocks about how anyone who voted Leave was an idiot and, probably, a racist.

 

The philosophical dilemma

I knew that most of those who would be voting for "Leave" would be doing so for reasons which I did not like. My dislike of the EU is that it is not internationalist enough, that it is protectionist and corrupt at its heart, that it is "crony capitalism".  Well, that's all very well, but if most of the people voting to leave are doing so because they want fewer Johnny Foreigners on their streets, my own vote for Leave would be unlikely to achieve the objectives I desire.

In other words, I had to ask myself whether the best way for me to achieve what I wanted might be, paradoxically, to support temporarily the system that I thought would eventually fail.

So, the philosophical question of "can I vote for a side where I disagree profoundly with the views of most of those voting the same way" leads to the practical question "can I vote in a way which might be less likely to lead to the outcome I desire than voting the other way?"

 

Let me be clear – I consider the current EU to be rotten to the core – its claims of democracy to be a sham, and its real rulers to be behind-the-scenes businessmen and politicians working along the lines of the Democratic and Republican parties in the US between the world wars. Many Remainers will disagree with my conclusion here, but that is by the by. I think the people really running Europe are corrupt. Just look at the pension arrangements of the Kinnocks (final salary schemes into six figures, paid for by the taxpayer) and the quality of the hotels that EU insiders stay in when they visit other cities. Say what you like about my mate Simon Billenness and his focus on international problems rather than ones nearer to home – at least he stays with local people and works on a restricted budget. You won't see many MEPs doing that.

 

Without heading into detailed practicalities on the case of issues, my eventual conclusion was that, for me, voting to Leave was the "right" thing to do, while voting to Remain was the "sensible" thing to do.  Simultaneously, I felt that voting Leave was the "brave" thing to do, while voting Remain was "cowardly".

 

As I said at the beginning. I would benefit from the stability likely to emerge in the short term from a Remain vote. I don't have 60 years of life ahead of me. For once I agree with Jeremy Hardy – a vote that is for "forever" rather than for five years, should mean that a young person's vote should counts for more than an old person's.

 

Large companies, financial services, passporting (it's a technical financial services thing) would all get blasted to the skies if we left (well, perhaps not, but the extra work over the next few years would make a big dent in the profits of many large companies). My equities holdings would take a bashing. Probably 95% of my wealth is in sterling, which would weaken. Property prices in London would fall.  All of these would work to my disfavour.

But that doesn't make voting Remain "right". For the good of the country, property prices SHOULD fall. Equites ARE overvalued relative to gilts, precisely because the sclerotic nature of the EU is condemning us to a decade or more of Japanese-style semi-deflation. But that's the side my bread is buttered.

 

An argument for Leave that I have seen put forward is that if we had never taken risks, well we would still be living in caves. And this is true.

However, it misses the point that in all likelihood 95% of the initial explorers who tried to not live in caves died from starvation, or animal attack, or whatever. The 5% that survived did much better than those who stayed in the caves, but the majority of the adventurers died. For the individual, the marginal gain from taking the risk might not be worthwhile, even though it would be for the overall good of the species.

 

In the past week it appears that Cameron and some others have realized that I am not alone in my demographc, that there are a number of rational people who love Europe, but hate the EU and those who work within it.

If one person "changed my mind" I would say it was Tristan McDonald – he made (for me) the key point that voting leave now is a bit like immediately leading out the ace of trumps in a bridge contract. It will win the trick, but it might not be the best strategy. And, although this is the last "referendum" (at least, I hope it is) it is not the last chance for leaving. That option will not go away. Since I oppose referendums, I could say to myself that a "Remain" vote (being for the status quo) also includes the opinion "I don't think the people should have the right to decide".

 

Also, Moneyweek makes the valid point, with which I think I agree. This is that the "Leave" vote in this situation really should require more than a simple majority of voters. It is, effectively, a constitutional change, so perhaps either a 60% majority or a simple majority of the total electorate should be required (or voting should be mandatory). Since I know that there is no hope of this larger majority being achieved, I can vote "tactically" to help the Remain side over 50% of those who vote.

 

 

And, thus, with a heavy heart, I was back where I started, voting Remain. I disagree with nearly all of the campaign stances on the Remain side, and with most of those on the Leave side (although at the top end, the Leave side has put forward a far more rational and sustainable argument)

 

So, there I stand, a person who is a "sensible coward", intending to vote for a muddied compromise. I wish I were a brave idealist prepared to vote for something which I believe in, but which I don't think my vote would achieve. Over the past three months I have come to dislike most of the campaigners on both sides, with the appeals to me from the "sensible arm" Brexit side having more emotional resonance than those from the "sensible side" of Remain.

 

This has been helped, partly, by the fact that the sensible side of Brexit has already won. The change in tone from the Remain camp; the admission that work needed to be done. Sure, Remainers might say "but that was always the case", but they weren't shouting about it until there seemed to be a very real threat that they would lose. The EU, and the British governments that follow Thursday's vote, have been put on notice that membership of the EU is not the "given" that they thought. Eurosceptics in other parts of Europe have been encouraged; even the most dogmatic and narrow-minder of the Germans have started to realize that they cannot create reality by changing an EU regulation. I am not an evangelist over this vote and I have come to like less those who are (on either side). It's a complex nuanced question forced unnecessarily on the British public,  demanding a blunt yes or no simple answer that both sides will misinterpret.

Not only that, we cannot know the full implications of either yes or no. Anyone who thinks that, in the face of these difficulties, that the answer is simple, has a different take on the EU from mine.

 

peterbirks: (Default)

 I have long been fascinated by opinion polls -- indeed, by statistics in general. That I am hopeless at the mathematical side of statistics just adds to my fascination.
Opinion polls seek to guess how people in their millions will act on the basis of relatively small samples. It was immediately obvious that just asking 1,000 people at random in the street would be at risk of generating an erroneous response (although the degree of that likely erroneousness is possibly less than many would think).
Pollsters realized that a good way to increase the accuracy would be to ensure that the sample of 1,000 people reflected as much as possible the population as a whole - age distribution, sex distribution, and so on.
This, however, leads to another problem. Over the years it was discovered that, shock, horror, what people said was not always the same as what they did. Even more concerning, what people really believed was often different from what they did (the famous female claimed belief in what attracts them to a sexual partner/life partner differs drastically from empirical evidence of whom women actually choose). The ways in which questions were phrased also had a significant impact on the response.
Clearly, opinion polling was something of a nightmare. And, given the misperformance of the pollsters leading up to the last general election in the UK, the pollsters still haven't got it right.
So, what is it that they are getting wrong?
The two major problems are the aforementioned "tendency to deceive" (people respond with what they think they ought to say, rather than what they really feel) -- a factor that has been a curse for the intellectual left-wing for decades. These days they flood Twitter and Facebook, demonstrate to their own satisfaction that the argument has been won, and wake up the day after voting to have been told "fuck off". The secret ballot allows visceral emotions to come into play. A person might not vote for a candidate because he or she doesn't like the fact that the candidate is fat. But no respondent to an opinion poll is likely to say that, and no online social media campaign is going to mention "the elephant in the room" if a candidate is 25 stone-plus and female.
The second problem is more complex -- one that is only just coming to be fully appreciated. That is, how do you decide what is a "representative" sample?
In the early days of polling, the techniques were primitive - mainly age and sex. This came most unstuck in 1948 in the US, when a telephone poll predicted that Harry Truman would lose. As seems obvious now, the key was in the phrase "telephone poll". With a market penetration still under 50%, people with a telephone were markedly more likely to be better off, and, therefore, Republican voters.
So, clearly we have to add "income" to our representative mix. In fact, what pollsters need to do is to add any variation in the make-up of the general population that is positively correlated with the way that people are likely to vote.
You can see the problem here. This in itself is something of a judgment call. As it is a sample, the pollsters must by definition filter out "irrelevancies". The problem appears to be that in a dynamic society, some things that used to be relevant have ceased to be so, while other things which did not use to be important, now are.
With the referendum, where "all bets are off" when it comes to traditional party politics, the problem is multiplied. What on earth is "relevant" when it comes to picking a true representative sample, when the split is not along traditional party lines? Also, there appear to be significantly more "elephants in the room" -- things which neither side are prepared to mention, but which could be significant factors when it comes to voting. That in turn feeds back to a higher likelihood of a "propensity to deceive" and a greater danger that the phrasing of the poll question will distort the result from reality.
I'd quite like to see some sample results from randomly asking 200 people each in, say, five streets in England. I suspect that the numbers obtained would not be a long way different from the carefully calculated "representative samples".
In poker I have long argued that you can learn more from small samples than you think. The conventional wisdom in poker is that you can't learn anything from, say, a player's actions over five hands. I argued, way back in the early 2000s, that if this was all that you had to work with, ignoring it was stupid, just because there was a higher probability that the answer you obtained would be wrong. Sure, with five hands the standard deviation is many times higher than it would be on a sample of 50, 500 and 5,000. But it is not TEN times higher than the sample of 50 - it's closer to three. It is not a thousand times higher than a sample of 5,000 -- it's closer to 80.
Sure, the conclusion you reach if the player raises four times and folds once in his or her first five hands might be erroneous. But the probability that this player is loose-aggressive is still significantly higher than it was when you had a sample size of zero.
In other words, completely random samples (and I mean virtually completely -- no self-selection on the basis of sex and age and only a minor one on grounds of geography) might have their place. And they have one plus -- they are much easier, quicker and cheaper to compile.

Peter Kellner, in his blog, referred to an interesting statistc -- that being the percentage of people who see Brexit as a "risk" compared with Remain as "safe". The rough percentage appears to be that 10pp more people see Brexit as the "risk option".
This offers an interesting left-field take on the referendum. It means that 10pp of the "Remain is safer" believers, or 5% of voters, would need to think that Brexit was "a risk worth taking", to make Brexit the likely winner. The remaining voters would be committed to Brexit or Remain either way. That 1-in-20 number strikes me as uncomfortable reading for Brexiters. Look at the general population's attitude to risk-taking on a major level. Nearly all of it is about risk-avoidance. Indeed, the huge risks that they do take are usually ones that they take unwillingly and, not infrequently, without the knowledge that they are taking the risk (see 40-year mortgages, Equitable Life, negative equity in the early 1990s). When a risk is known and perceived, and conceived to be significant, people usually plump for safety.
From that point of view, the Remainers' best argument could well be the one that they are uncomfortable to make -- that, even if being in the EU is shit, the equivalent of an abusive relationship -- even if this is the case -- we are now so inextricably tied into the EU that the risk of leaving is too great. That, no matter how bad it is, leaving would be too big a risk.
This is what I mean by "the elephant in the room". It's probably Remainers' strongest argument, but it is one that no Remainer is willing to accept exists (or, if they are, willing to campaign on it).

peterbirks: (Default)
I see from a BBC article today that there has been a "dramatic" fall in the prescription of antibiotics by general practitioners (GPs). I make it about 8%, which I guess could be described as "dramatic". One can only be certain when one knows the circumstances of each doctor's decision.
However, it did get me wondering.

As the article states: 

"The government has offered a financial incentive to get GPs to cut down on their prescribing.
Clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) get a Quality Premium payment if family doctors hit the target.Reducing unnecessary prescribing saves the NHS money in drug costs.
The figures show GPs have overshot the targets."

Now, it seems plain to me that doctors would not, if functioning as proper doctors, prescribe antibiotics if they knew that they would do no good (let's ignore the placebo potential here).
But if there is a 50:50 chance that the antibiotics will do some good, I presume that a doctor would feel obliged by a duty of care to prescribe the antibiotics. So, where, roughly, do we have to get to in the probability arena for the doctor to decline to prescribe antibiotics -- to put the general good above the individual good?

And this is the paradox. Theoretically (I would have thought) the doctor always has to put the individual good first, but clearly in practice this is not the case.
The Department of Health's Standing Medical Advisory Committee rather ducked the issue in the early 2000s, recommending that doctors not prescribe antibiotics over the phone, for sore throats ("most" of which were viral) and for "simple" colds and 'flu (nearly all of which were viral). Effectively they were saying "don't prescribe antibiotics as a first resort".

The Nursing Times observed in January 2004 that

 "There will always be a dilemma for prescribers in deciding whether promoting the interests of individual patients outweighs the legitimate public health concerns regarding resistance. "

but failed to address how the dilemma could be resolved.

Ars Technica in December 2015 seemed to me to completely miss what the dilemma was. It wrote

"Yet doctors face a daily dilemma: to be good doctors, they must only prescribe antibiotics when the drugs are needed. But to make patients think they’re good doctors, they must hand out antibiotics freely—at least according to a new nationwide healthcare survey in England."

I don't think that this is the dilemma at all.
Geoffrey Scott May, in "Handbook Essentials Antibiotics", addresses the paradox (p2) when he writes.

"Rarely, an experienced doctor will withhold antibiotics because he thinks a patient has a virus infection, but the patient later dies from meningitis. This is an unanswerable paradox."

The paradox is only unanswerable because organizations such as the SMAC refuse to assign numbers to the problem. Because of this their advice has to be vague. But it's interesting that financial incentives are having an effect.

That leads me to think that there is a possible way to defeat the "overshoot" in NHS budgets (they will ALWAYS overshoot, because individual departments will always ensure that they spend 100% of their budget as a minimum, to avoid certain cuts the following year. Meanwhile, some departments will be unable to keep to 100% of their budget -- thus leading to an overall overshoot).

Put simply, offer either individuals or groups a personal financial incentive to come in 10% under budget. For year one it could be 50% of the undershoot, with a promise that they overall budget for that department will not be reduced by more than 10% of the undershoot.
 

peterbirks: (Default)
 With "Hail Caesar" about to be released, Mark Kermode has come up with his top five Coen Brothers films. They were:
5: Miller's Crossing
4: No Country For Old Men
3: Blood Simple
2: Barton Fink
1: Fargo

Films that missed out (in order of predicted disagreement)
The Big Lebowski
A Serious Man
Inside Llewyn Davis
Raising Arizona
The Hudsucker Proxy
O Brother Where Art Thou

I think I would agree with three of Kermode's top five (but not in the same order. NCFOM and Blood Simple I would leave out simply because I think that A Serious Man is horribly underrated, and that Inside Llewyn Davis has Carey Mulligan.
NCFOM has magnificent cinematography and a superb performance from Javer Bardem, but I think it's narrative is a bit weak.
So my top five is:
5: Inside Llewyn Davis
4: A Serious Man
3: Barton Fink
2: Fargo
1: Miller's Crossing

Spotlight

Mar. 2nd, 2016 11:59 pm
peterbirks: (Default)

 It was something of a delight to see that Spotlight had won the Oscar for best picture. This was because I have for quite a while been singing the praises of director Tom McCarthy based on the two of his films (after tonight, three) that I have seen.

Those were Win Win, starring Paul Giamatti, and McCarthy's debut, the absolutely magnificent The Station Agent.

Tonight I watched The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins, and once again I was struck that McCarthy has a rare director's talent - as with Wes Anderson, no matter what the topic of the movie, there is something indefinably Tom McCarthy about it. Perhaps it's the degree of understatement; or his refusal to pander to stereotypes. 

The Visitor is about a late middle-aged academic suffering from ennui; he hasn't written anything original or taught anything original, indeed, thought anything original, for years. He is forced to head back to New York from Connecticut when the co-author (for which, read, real author - the Jenkins character merely put his name to it to give it gravitas) of a paper goes sick, so Jenkins has to go to a conference to present it.
Turning up at his apartment in New York (academics in the US are clearly better paid than they are in the UK) he finds a couple living there. They have been scammed by a fake landlord.
Jenkins lets the couple stay, and gradually comes alive again. 
But then the husband is picked up by police for jumping a ticket barrier (he didn't) and is discovered to be an "illegal". Jenkins is thrust into an underworld of New York that he has never before seen.
As the critics observed, it would be easy for a director to fall into sentimentality and stereotypical liberal masochism. But somehow he avoids it. In a way, a sad film is uplifting, perhaps because Jenkins is, in a very small way, redeemed. One man, at least, was saved.

Win Win, starring Giamatti, covers somewhat similar psychological ground, but the subject matter is completely different. But the key to the success is that McCarthy somehow gives the viewer hope. Even in a shit world, with imperfect people who sometimes do dishonest things, there is an undercurrent of decency. Through it all, keep the faith, and make the best of the small pluses.
 
Oh, and small minor factoid. McCarthy has also been an actor, and he played the ambitious journalist Scott Templeton in the final series of The Wire - the guy who ends up winning a Pulitzer for a story that was, at base, a fake.

peterbirks: (Default)
     Pew Research reports that in the US it's become a land of alien tribes.
The downside of the splinterization of information provision is that:

"They can't stand the other side's viewpoint - and because hyper-partisan news and social media enables them to live in ideological isolation - they don't even have to try to understand it."

It's going to go the same way in the UK. Most partisan people I know gravitate towards social media friends who think the same way and media outlets that reinforce their own point of view. There will be no dialogue and no compromise, because it will be easy to find posts which make you think that your own view is the "norm". Everyone you work with will be within your political spectrum; you will never meet those on the other side and they will become cartoon characters with cartoon names.
It's a grim prospect for a country that was once a home of dialogue but that has now become, on both sides, one of caricature.
You think that the "other side" is more different than it was, say, 60 years or 100 years ago, but nothing could be further from the truth. Neither Corbyn nor Cameron is the devil incarnate; neither is going to bring about the end of civilization as we know it, and the suffering of either the taxed or the underprivileged is as nothing to how it was in the decades gone by. Our period isn't "special" and your opponents aren't unique. Everyone is just trying to achieve their own vision of "fair and just", and if you refuse to see that, it's because you only mix with people on your own side.
peterbirks: (Default)
On Bundling:

A sure-fire way to lose friends is to point out the basic assumptions underlying what they think they are arguing about. As I have often claimed in the past, people tend to have an underlying belief in something, after which they find the arguments that support that underlying belief, after which the disagreements with other people about these surface matters, rather than the underlying concept.

So What Are People Really Disagreeing About?
A simple example of this is gun control in the USA. The two sides of this will never be reconciled because they never touch upon their underlying beliefs. Instead the arguments are on surface matters (number of deaths through use of guns in the US, the fact that penalizing the vast majority of law-abiding gun owners is not the best way to reduce this, and so on). At heart, people who oppose gun control tend to be people whose family owned guns, who are responsible with guns themselves, and who think that teaching their own children respect for guns is the way to go. Supporters of gun control tend to come from families where guns were not part of the underlying culture. Therefore to propose gun control is to attack some people's sense of family, their upbringing, their way of life. It is an attack on a person's sense of being, an assertion that their way of life is "wrong". Meanwhile, proponents of gun control will claim that this is not the case – they are "only" talking about laws controlling gun ownership. That disconnect, with the one side not realizing why they are so emotionally attached to gun ownership and the other side not realizing the extent to which the freedom to own guns links to many Americans' sense of family, dooms any debate to irrelevance, because the argument is not about that which matters.

When We Buy Something, What Do We Buy?
But this is not going to be an essay on the rights and wrongs of gun ownership. What I want to write about is what we buy when we buy something and what we sell when we sell something. And I want to link this into the problem that media producers have today in monetizing content production.
My thesis here is that most marketers and sellers do not really know what they are selling, and that nearly all buyers do not realize what they are buying.
How can this be, you might ask? "If I buy a newspaper, I buy a newspaper. If I buy a gym membership, I buy a gym membership." Or, if you are a marketer or seller, you might say "Nonsense! I know exactly what I am selling. I know all about upselling, brand extension, and the like. You don't need to lecture me about my job, Mr Birks!". But, think about it. A theory of the free market is an exchange of goods and services so that both sides "make a profit". Both, as it were, are better off as a result of the deal. Many of those who sell services sincerely believe that this is the key to success. Identify a person's needs (or a company's needs)" and provide a "solution". There is also (I would argue) a wholly artificial division between the concept of a "good" and the concept of a "service". The difference is one relating to the terms of the contract (and the time for which it is valid), rather than the item being bought and sold. When, for example, does a short-term lease on a property stop being a lease and start being a rent?

Profit Depends On Buyer Inefficiency
However, my argument here is that nearly all profit in the past has been a result of inefficiencies in what is being sold. If those inefficiencies are eliminated, an awful lot of providers, of sellers, of marketers, will not have a job.
And what is the greatest of inefficiencies? It is something which marketers and salespeople focus on most. Bundling. Every time you buy a package, you are part of an entire business model that is focused not on efficiently matching buyers and sellers, but one which depends on inefficiently matching buyers and sellers.
This is not a product of the Internet age, although the Internet age is highlighting it because, for the first time, we can see simpler ways around it. In many cases the Internet has also served to divorce two things – content and form – a point to which I shall return.

Three Examples:
Now, we can see three obvious examples of where bundling is required to make a business model work – gym membership, mobile phone contracts and media packages.
(a) Gym Membership
If I buy a gym membership I buy the right to use that gym either all the time, or at off-peak times. Whichever I buy, it is impossible for me to use all of that which I have been sold. I can't use the gym 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I can't even use it all of the weekend. It's impossible to buy an "efficient" gym membership. Indeed, if people who bought gym memberships all used their gyms as much as they possibly could, the business model would collapse; there wouldn't be enough gym space, or machines, or showers, to cope.
(b) Mobile Phone Contracts
Mobile phone packages, you might think, are designed to match needs and demands. There's no end of "what package is right for you?" comparison sites. But, nevertheless, packages are dependent on inefficiencies. No-one uses precisely 1,000 texts a month or the exact amount of hours aloud. Indeed, when such a package exists (I have a PAYG package with O2 that enables me to "carry over" credit) the companies stop selling it. These days you pay your tenner for an amount of data and a number of free calls, but the credit is not carried over. Smart arses like me were efficient in our use of the offering, and that efficiency made the offering insufficiently profitable. The mobile phone companies MUST sell "waste".

(c) Media bundling
Now, media packages are interesting, because (i) they link us with the past and (ii) the unsustainability of the model is becoming plain.
In the business-to-consumer world, the old model is, effectively, dead. But it's interesting to examine the inefficiencies inherent in the old model. When you buy a physical newspaper, you will not ready every word of that paper; you will not take in every advertisement. But the person placing the advertisement pays "per reader" and the buyer of the newspaper has to buy the whole caboodle.
When you subscribe to Netflix, or Sky, or anything, I would guess that you rarely use more than 1% (in terms of product) or 10% (in terms of your available time) of that which you are entitled to use.
The inefficiency is plain to see there, but what we fail to realize is that this inefficiency spreads to nearly everything that we buy.


It's Not Just Digital
Take a saucepan. When you buy a saucepan you buy the "right" to use that when you like, how you like, as often as you like, "in perpetuity" (i.e., until you wear it out or you die). But how often do you use it? If it's more than 1% of your waking time, then it's probably your favourite pan.
The same applies to nearly every physical thing in the house. Not for nothing do bed salespeople emphasize that you spend a third of your life using their product. Strangely, you don't hear vacuum cleaner sales people saying "of course, you'll only use it for an hour a week".
How much more efficient it would be if we could "timeshare" saucepans, somehow magicking one up when we needed it from a nationwide pool of shared saucepans, returning it to that pool when we had finished using it.
The concept of "timesharing" certain products is, indeed, offensive to many in the developed world. "Bed sharing" (as immigrants were said to do in the 1960s) was something of a slur. But no-one murmurs about "bathroom sharing", as long as it's sequential rather than contemporaneous.
Why should this be? As with my earlier point, this is a matter of form and content. When we buy a newspaper we don't really buy "form"; as the saying goes, yesterday's newspaper is only good for fish and chips. But when we buy books, we buy form and content. We keep a book. There are and have been more than one method of "timesharing" books – the Popular Book Centre on Clapham Road was an established part of my life when I was young; libraries are a system that enables the sequential sharing of books. But a book has "form". And the point here is that, when we buy anything, we buy two things – the utility that comes from using it, and the right to use it as and when we please. Both of these have value (think of the relative value of getting mini-cabs everywhere and having a 24-hour chauffeur on call), and the proportions in which that value is distributed amongst owners can now be measured to a far greater degree than was possible when, with most products, you had to buy the two together.

The Developing Conflict
The problem here is that which we experience when a system appears that maximizes the efficiency of product distribution. If most business models depend for sustainability on inefficiencies (packages), the creation of more efficient packages by other companies leads to a shift in the economic model of either a business sector or – possibly, society as a whole.
And here we come to news media.
Despite no end of board meetings, strategy meetings, analyses and the like, I found little evidence that anyone in either business to business (b2b) or business to consumer (b2c) publishing really had a clue what to do. This is not to say that they did not know what needed to be done. They knew precisely what needed to be done. Create value so that people will want to pay for the content they get. Even better, create value so that people will NEED to pay for the content they get.

(What was not stated was "also, try to bundle up packages so that, even though they only need a small part of it, they have to pay for a lot more". This was in fact a fundamental Insurance Day strategy about four years ago, when the insurance newsletters were merged into Insurance Day and the price was doubled on the grounds that "much more is being offered". It was in fact the opposite of "meeting customers' needs". It was the archetype of "bundling", a shift towards rather than away from inefficiencies.
That's not necessarily a bad thing in terms of profit-generation. If someone desperately needs something and you are the only supplier, then in the short term you make more money by making them buy other stuff as well. In the long term, particularly in the world of information and analysis, what happens is that someone else comes along to offer better value.)

So, the messages came from on high that, in the land of b2b, "news" was becoming commoditized, and we had to provide analysis, because that had value. What was missed was that (a) analysis is what people like McKinsey provided, and they paid their staff a lot more than publishers paid. And (b) if everybody in b2b moved over to analysis, you would be back where you started.
How so? Well, one of the things that marketers and salespeople missed was that it was not just a question of money that companies were spending. It was also time. It was "attention". In a world where the purchaser was cash rich and time poor, it was the attention that had value. Even if you added tons of value through top-notch analysis, if everybody else was doing it, you were competing for a fixed amount of attention that was available in your market. The one thing that you cannot create more of is time.

(This is not quite true. My own product at Informa, IIN 24, was one of the first to spot the value of time. Although it LOOKED like it only produced a commoditized news service, what I offered was a filter. No analysis, but I have acted as a filter for the reader. While newspapers were getting bigger and fatter, IIN24 stayed small, thin, and easily read. Its selling point was not what was in it, so much as what the editor had discarded as not worthy of the reader's attention. IIN24 was not selling content, it was really selling information time management. This was quite a radical concept in the early 2000s, before it was widely recognized that there was "too much" information out there. This was another example of people often not realizing what they were buying or what they were selling.)

If Everything Is Free, Why Pay?
For my generation, the sheer availability of free content is mind-boggling. I still remember being bored when young because there was "nothing to do". There were only three TV channels, four radio channels (none 'dedicated' to news), books were unavailable, the newspaper had been read. Obtaining information was difficult and pricy.
Today, it's all about time allocation. To get me to spend money on information requires marketing tricks along the lines of "I don't want to be left out" (this works well in the USA, less well in the UK) or "I really want it NOW" (a trick that works well with those who have problems with delayed gratification).
But, note, in both cases, what is being sold goes beyond the content. And, in a time-poor world, what is being sold is, distinctively, time sensitive.

The argument is in many places that there is "too much" content – be that too many films, too much news, too much analysis. I don't buy this argument. I don't think that the amount of content will magically shrink back to what traditional business publishers call a "sustainable level" just because there is more out there than people can consume. The current level is sustainable – it just isn't sustainable in a way that will keep marketers, journalists, salespeople and board executives in the lifestyle to which they would like to become accustomed.

Tom Mullaly made this comment on a The Media Briefing essay by Kevin Anderson. I don't think I can improve on what he wrote:

"‘News’ is from a time when barriers to content creation existed. W/those barriers gone news orgs are marginalized water dealers in a never-ending rainstorm. In 100 yrs the time of ‘News ‘ will be seen as the anomaly, not the current period. I say that to point out the futility of mourning the death of the old model.

"The market does not 'abhor super-abundance'. Businesses trading in a super-abundant commodity abhor its abundance, and that's an entirely different thing. Consumers of it revel in it, and that means you can monetize it, even if it's not quite the news you knew.

"I have endless respect for good journalism and I know how valuable it is in a free society. So do many people watching cat videos and reading 'You won't believe how one weird trick etc.' articles. But we are collectively voting with our attention. Mourn it if you insist, but don't deny what's happening.

"Monetization. The trick is not to monetize the 'news'. It's to monetize attention. Look at the business models that are working. No, they won't support news organizations as we knew them, though high quality journalism will still exist. There is a desire for it, and people will still pay. But they will pay with attention. And that will be enough. Outdated thinking doesn't see it yet.

"You do not sell someone what you want to make. You sell them what they want."

A frequent homily heard by the grunts in the b2b business is the need to "evolve". This is a misnomer. First, species do not consciously evolve. Random things happen to DNA, most of which are irrelevant, a small proportion of which are fatal, and a much smaller proportion of which improve the survivability of the species. In other words, conscious evolution in the corporate sense is most likely to generate a lot of aggravation without making any difference, is less likely to cause the company to collapse and die, and MUCH less likely to generate an improvement.
When the question is therefore asked (rhetorically) in a strategy meeting – "are you saying that we should do nothing and slowly die? " to be followed by the consensus of "we have to do something, so let's pretend to the board that this strategy is going to work, even though we have no idea whether it will or not", what you really have a mutually agreed pretence and self-delusion, rather than a sound strategy.

August 2017

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