Monthly Archives: August 2009

What I learned from my mother in law

My mother-in-law is Singaporean Chinese. She comes over to London to stay with us, and make a fuss of her grandchildren like all grandmas do.

A few years ago we were having the house renovated and she was watching the workmen putting in the drains.

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Editor’s blog: Socially useful banks, and Big Brother

Adair Turner is a smart guy, and when he ruminates about the causes of the crash and how we might seek out some remedies, it’s worth listening. Being a Prospect magazine fan (I once read an whole edition from cover to cover and it passed nearly a quarter of a 12-hour flight back to London) I’d read the piece in bed last night that caused all the front page headlines this morning: ‘Tax socially useless banks, says FSA chief’.

What Turner says in the article is far more subtle and nuanced than he’s being given credit for. He very rarely shows his hand by advocating firm policy answers to all the problems, merely considering options. One of the points he makes is that: ‘It is hard to distinguish between valuable financial innovation and non-valuable… I think that some of it is socially useless activity’.

The relationship between money and social usefulness has occupied economists and philosophers for hundreds of years, but it’s on all our minds at the moment. I worry that if bankers were to be reduced to funding what is ‘socially useful’, that might lead to quite a few problems. Even if what they do behind their Canary Wharf terminals has no more immediate social use than an hour’s blackjack in a casino, the trickle-down effects of their huge tax contributions still pays for nurses and teachers.

And further, what does the manager at Barclays or HSBC do when approached by Richard Desmond seeking a nice little loan to set up his latest version of ‘Skinny and Wriggly’ or ‘Big and Bouncy’? Porn may be legal and a good way of making a living, but socially useful it normally isn’t. Also, why is the engagement in credit default swaps and other weird financial devices any more socially useless than a dam in China that will despoil the environment and wreck the lives of tens of thousands? Many pension funds that will enable you and me to live comfortable secure lives in our retirements had their coffers swelled by such devices (before, of course, it all went belly-up and they went on to wreck them).

On the subject of social usefulness, one cannot allow the passing of Big Brother to go unremarked. I lost interest a long while ago in a programme that appeared to defy its audience to derive viewing interest from the very essence of banal mediocrity. That, of course, was its schtick: making a bunch of ignorant, no-talent nobodies famous not for 15 minutes but a whole Summer. And very nicely it did for Channel 4, too. At its peak, it was providing the channel with some 25% of its revenue – and it’s still profitable today, despite the suits stretching it thinner and thinner with numerous multi-platformed spin-offs. C4 provided live feeds online and overnight, so we could watch all the time, kidding us that this was some sort of deeply interesting and worthy social experiment. A less malign Truman Show.

The point of Big Brother and much other reality TV offering is quite precisely to defy that sort of social usefulness that Reith had in mind for TV and other media in the good old days. It’s cheap, garbage entertainment – two fingers up to edification and what used to be termed ‘the higher things in life’. The problem for Channel 4 is that it’s in a parlous state financially – which serves it right, because that is the result of the utter lack of original programming ideas from its management. Pushing boundaries is what it is supposed to be there to do. But it now wants government cash – top-sliced from the BBC or wherever it can lay its hands on it – to continue on its dubious mission. But if it goes on the way it has been in the last decade, it will be barely more ‘socially useful’ than Diva TV +1 or ITV 12. In which case it can fight for its own place in the market.

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Editor’s blog: Watch out for Nimbys on high-speed track

I can vividly remember my first trip on our first (and still only) high-speed line to the Channel Tunnel, fifteen years ago. There I was in my seat at the old Eurostar terminus at Waterloo, expecting the train to be travelling at Warp Factor Three by the time we hit Brixton. For someone who had mis-spent his youth between the age of 10 and 12 collecting train numbers, this was a big deal. I was cruelly disappointed. We trundled along at barely walking pace through South London, stopping for signals, to admire the playing fields of Dulwich and to allow elderly ladies across the line. Things barely sped up once we hit Kent, and it took ages to reach the coast.

The humiliation of all Brits on board was complete when we eventually emerged from the tunnel on the French side, the train extended its overhead pantograph, and the conductor smugly announced: ‘Nous allons maintenant a trois cent kilometres a l’heure’.

Fans of high-speed train travel will be heartened by today’s announcement that Network Rail thinks we ought to built a new super-quick line, to open in 2025. All the arguments appear highly convincing. Passenger numbers continue to grow, and by 2020 the main line to Birmingham and the North-West will be full. By 2025, our paltry 70 miles of high-speed track will be outnumbered by Spain (4415 miles) France (4135 miles) and even Morocco (422 miles). A new line would reduce the journey time to Manchester to 1 hour and 6 minutes and Glasgow to 2 hours and 16 minutes.

Having just returned from a Ryanair-enabled holiday, I’m also persuaded that short-haul air travel – even if it isn’t wasn’t planet-wrecking in terms of passenger miles per unit of energy – is now the most uncivilised way of travelling since the coffin ships.

So the new line is probably a good idea: create quite a few jobs, emit a lot less carbon at a cost of just 34bn. Although any one who believes it would actually come in at that price is living in la-la land. Nothing to do with railways ever comes in either on time or at budgeted cost.

But it will require a monumental effort to make it happen. This is because the other aspect of the development of the line to the Channel Tunnel, as many will recall, is what a protracted planning nightmare it was. Nobody wanted it in their backyard and the battles with Kentish protestors went on for years. In a small country like ours, the line will have to go straight to bring any benefit. But we are small and densely-populated. Any attempt to rip a straight line for the Iron Horse through Buckinghamshire – complete with the necessary sound baffles – is likely to result in a second Peasant’s Revolt. And where you build huge new terminals in the centre of London, Birmingham and Manchester is anyone’s guess, despite the property slump.

The French, of course, have an entirely different attitude towards this: most areas actively lobby for new high speed lines, and any objectors get their skulls cracked by the CRS if they kick up too much fuss. And in Morocco the number of Nimbys throwing themselves in front of earth movers as the line advances from Marrakech to Agadir is guaranteed to be small.

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It’s a joke

Chris Bardsley once wrote a commercial for Walkers Poppadums, little crisps with an Indian flavour. We had a young, good-looking Indian Elvis (Las Vegas period) singing in a corner shop.

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Wikipedia or Wakipedia?

WikipediaOver the last few weeks there’s been a range of articles arguing that Wikipedia may be on the way out.

Excellent pieces in the New Scientist and The Guardian have highlighted research carried out by Ed Chi at the Palo Alto Research Center in California which warns that Wikipedia has become less welcoming to new contributors. This has led to a severe drop in the number of articles created – the website peaked in 2006 with 60,000 new articles per month, and since then this figure has declined by about a third.

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Small businesses may benefit without their own website

Nearly every small business has a website these days, but looking at search results, it’s getting harder and harder for them to compete against large directory type websites. For instance, The Abbeville pub in Clapham is ranked 5th in a pile of directory websites that have pages about it. Not bad, but not amazing either. It’s a situation I fully expect to get worse.

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Sun people v ice people

Louis Farrakhan is an American black militant. He said something I found very interesting. He said the world was divided into two kinds of people. Sun people and Ice people. Now by that he meant black (for sun) and white (for ice).

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IAB Twitter guidelines for brands – 20 tips for Twitter success

The UK Government recently unveiled its first Twitter strategy document to encourage departments to get tweeting. Weighing in at a hefty 5,382 words it was the equivalent of more than 250 tweets.

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We don’t know what we don’t know

We used to have a small fish tank in the kitchen for our children. Sometimes I’d come down in the morning and find a fish flopping around, dying on the kitchen floor. Because we didn’t have a lid on the tank, they thought they’d jump out and escape.

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Marketers V psychologists. Let the battle commence!

Marketers could teach evolutionary psychologists a thing or two. That’s the inference of Geoffrey Miller’s latest book, Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism. Well, at least according to Dylan Evans’ pithy review in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian.

It’s Miller’s, probably rather obvious, contention that marketers develop an intuitive understanding of consumer behaviour through their experience of selling real products. It’s this that could help evolutionary psychologists refine their theories of evolved preferences and sexual signaling. But hey, wait a minute Mr Marketer, that Nobel Prize isn’t quite in the bag yet! Evans also points to Miller’s argument that marketers tend to use overly simplistic models of human nature. Ones that remain uninformed by the past 20 years of research by evolutionary psychologists and behavioural ecologists. Indeed, Miller himself talks about marketers who, “…still believe that premium products are bought to display wealth, status and taste, and they miss the deeper mental traits such as kindness, intelligence and creativity”.

So what’s the conclusion? Well, I guess that it’s a case of ‘could do better’. Miller gives what one might consider to be a salutary wake-up call. The truth is there’s a wealth of deep data at our disposal – especially from the wonderful world of digital. It’s real data too – not stuff conjured up in an evolutionary psychologist’s ivory tower. However, this needs to be combined with a much deeper understanding of what makes people tick. It’s simply not good enough to rely on the same outmoded stereotypical definitions of who our consumers are and what they are doing. As a discipline, marketing needs to draw upon much wider learnings if it is to discover humanity’s secret selling points!

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