The Girl who kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson

The third and probably the final book in this sequence of books.

Of all the books it was probably the hardest to get into, I was struggling to get caught up in it, but the plot hit me a curve-ball and I was hooked. As before this is an unconventional thriller, which takes an unusually uncynical view of those in high office. As soon as many of these senior politicians have the circumstances explained to them, they immediately agree that the rights of a girl cannot be infringed thereby joining the side of the good and smug.

Probably not quite as overpoweringly smug as the second book, but once against Blomkvist proves sexually irrestistable to women, while Salander effortlessly hacks and fights her way through a ruthless set of conspirators.

Having said all that, it is good escapist fun, well enough written not to be annoying and plotted with all the precision of a swiss watch.

I will miss Salander, she is an engaging heroine.

mopping up

I'll try and mop up a few things with this blog posting.

Why don't they get the people who make film trailers make the whole film. I've been sorely dissappointed by pretty much every recent film I've seen. The trailers have been superb. But the films, long, dull, poor endings. All the best stuff crammed into two minutes of trailer, and everything else in the film is pretty much inferior.

Maybe this worked in the past when you only saw a trailer once, so you did not really remember it, but now you can watch a trailer any number of times, so you are well familiar with it by the time that you see the film.

Fortunately there seem to be a plethora of classic films coming out on DVD at the moment, so I'm ordering some cult films for my viewing pleasure. Recently seen Ghost Dog, and Kings of the Road.

The sun is out, at last. Time to get back out into the garden. Creeping ground elder is taking over one corner of my garden, so I might need to disregard my principles and apply weedkiller to avoid the whole place being taken over with it. I'm also stepping down from some community work. I've done it for three years, and at about half a day a week, it is really too much to fit in. The garden has been sorely neglected for a few years now, and it would be nice to just free up a bit of time at the weekends. Lately things have been an awful dash.

I've been doing my best to be organised, and I'm making progress on things, but there just seem to be too few hours in the day to get everything done.

The BLDG BLOG by Geoff Manaugh

I have just finished reading the BLDG BLOG by Geoff Manaugh, named after the selfsame blog at

http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/

I was really excited to get it as a Christmas present, and it was perfect reading fodder for a lazy and largely sofa bound Christmas break. It is brim full of architectural conjecture, full as only something drawn from a blog can be. The author shoots off on a myriad of conjectures, moving cities, floating cities, weather as a weapons. These are conjectures, sketching out possible futures, possible fictions.

Manaugh seems to care more for buildings than for people, but he is a warm and witty writer. This book is good company.

All in all the book is an attractive and enticing package, well illustrated throughout, episodice and endearing. Even if you are familiar with the blog, the book is a much better book than you might imagine, being much more than just a collation of blog postings. It hangs together well and reads smoothly.

Altogether recommended.



Customer service

I know that big business is attempting to personalise the service that they can offer. So I get a personalised screen every time I arrive at Amazon, and a wishlist that I can publish to the world.

But micro businesses are taking this to a whole new level. We got a cheery postcard from the person we rented a holiday cottage from this year, when my wife orders from eBay retailers she gets a cheery postcard with her order, when I order shareware I can email the developer with questions or suggestions, I can comment on Redbubble and the designer of a teeshirt will amend it to reflect my comments.

The classic split used to be that a business was a commodity business or it was not. Perhaps there is a split between the micro business with micro business standards of service and the macro business with macro business standards of service. If you cannot make a compelling case that you are offering a high quality service at either the macro or the micro level, then perhaps it is time to start looking for a new business to be in.

doing digital

IMAG0154



Maybe it is just me, but for some reason when I do something digital I always feel that it is somehow less worthwhile than something that is less digital.

So an email not worth as much as a letter, reading a website is not worth as much as reading a newspaper, organising a computer's hard drive is not worth as much as tidying up a room, sorting out my webpage is not worth as much as fixing a cupboard.

There is a certain satisfaction to be had from posting a real letter, but I suppose we had better get used to living in a virtual world.

Reinventing the working class

I have long disliked the term working class, it seems to hark bark to the First World War and outdated mindsets. However it clearly denotes something. There is an element of what was the working class that is now adrift. Living in sink estates, detached from employment, perhaps for generations. These people were the perfect workers and soldiers that built the British Empire, but now they seem to lack purpose, and they languish largely out of sight and out of mind.

When I went to secondary school the year was streamed at the end of second year, and suddenly half the year was lumped together into a group that had very little in the way of academic aspirations. I don't think any of them were terribly bothered by this, in a few years they would be done with school and glad of it. As long as there was a huge demand for unskilled labour, in the shipyards, on the land, in service, etc etc this arrangement worked perfectly well.

The nature of that society was that there was still a need for a huge army of general purpose infantry, with a smaller need for an officer class, and an even smaller need for a lofty general class above that. The system worked, it produced what the society needed in about the right proportions, people were generally happy with their lot. The bright, ambitious and hard working might seek to better their lot, the unfortunate or unmotivated might drop down the social scale, but an accident of birth, provided your breeding and determined which stock you belonged to.

But society has changed, the government believes that the way to a stronger economy is through a better educated workforce. If they can populate the country entirely with university graduates then the economy will thrive. Of course there are a residue of unskilled jobs, but if British people do not want them then economic migrants from overseas will relish the opportunity. Such guest workers have been common across Europe for generations.

If half the school population has no academic aspirations then suddenly you have a great many people without a place in this modern economy. There remain the traditional working class unskilled and skilled jobs, but with the loss of heavy industry and the move to a more skilled and flexible workforce, a sizable chunk of society no longer has much to offer. Having little to offer, they have little to gain. They sit detached from society, aware of aspirations and lifestyles that are as foreign to their lives as a fairy story.

I believe that this is more an issue of culture than ability, but cultures take generations to change. In the meantime there remain a considerable number of people who are largely detached from the economy and society. This cannot be right or just.

It is not that there is nothing that these people can do, it is not that they do not want to do anything. It is not that they lack value and dignity.

I would propose that the government starts to mobilise those who want, to join a peace time army. An army that can be deployed across the world to build infrastructure and social capacity. There is a proliferation of failed and failing states across the world. These need good government, decent infrastructure, society and not anarchy. In this country we have a multitude of people that are not only up for the task, but are more than capable of it. The major world powers are still to fixated on winning wars, we need to increase the peace. Increase the world supply of decency, honesty, trust, compassion. We do this by driving out corruption and inefficiency, providing adequate governance and infrastructure across the world. This need not be democracy and the first world as we understand it. Maybe these countries can leapfrog us to some better post Oil future society.

We have a vast supply of underutilised talent that we should use for good, before it is turned to ill use. The lesson across the world is that people have a huge potential, and we should be harnessing that for the good of all, before society is corrupted and degraded by a disenchanted minority.

Why doesn't Moore's law apply to everything else?

From Wikipedia

"Moore's Law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware, in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.
The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore's law: processing speed, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras.[2] All of these are improving at (roughly) exponential rates as well.[3] This has dramatically increased the usefulness of digital electronics in nearly every segment of the world economy.[4][5] Moore's law precisely describes a driving force of technological and social change in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The trend has continued for more than half a century and is not expected to stop until 2015 or later.[6]
The law is named for Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, who introduced the concept in a 1965 paper.[7][8][9] It has since been used in the semiconductor industry to guide long term planning and to set targets for research and development.[10]"

This is exponential growth, that could be charted with a logarithmic scale. The implications of this being, that things don't just increase by a regular amount, they increase a lot, every time. The rate of increase accelerates, it accelerates to inconceivable levels very quickly. Just do the maths, if the Romans introduced two rabbits to Britain, and the rabbit population doubles every year. After ten years there would be 1,024 rabbits, ten years later there would be 1,028,576, ten years later there would be 1,073,741,824.

There are some good talks on TED about the implications of Moore's Law by Ray Kurzweill. It is also interesting to hear engineers from the semiconductor industry talk about living with Moore's Law. No engineer wants Moore's Law to stop on their watch. In fact the underlying paradigm tends to shift to let Moore's Law continue, so vacuum tubes went out, and quantum computing appears on the horizon.
http://www.stanford.edu/group/edcorner/uploads/podcast/barrett091021.mp3

Anyway, this is all great. Listening to TED talks and Moore's Law evangelists does fill you with the gee whiz desire to aww shucks let put on a show and save the orphanage and save Africa while we are at it.

[aside - while the capacity of our computers has increased, how we use them has not changed all that much, software does not change much.]

But working in public policy none of the issues I come across seem susceptible to that sort of improvement. Child Poverty rates, life expectancy, levels of morbidity, public perceptions of safety and wellbeing.

None of the systems that we work through seem to be susceptible to that sort of improvement either. Is parliament 1,024 times better than it was ten years ago? Is our legislation 1,028,576 times better than it was twenty years ago?

Why is this so? Could we improve our lives at the same rate that we could improve our technology? What would a world look like that was changing in this way?

I believe that we are potentially on the brink of a new world. Just as Bill Gates left Microsoft to run his charitable foundation, applying an engineers rather steely logic to improving our human lot as a species, we too need to learn from engineers.

[aside - just what would a multi billion dollar charitable foundation run by Steve Jobs actually look like? It would certainly be tasteful, a little exclusive and pricey, and probably end up giving people things that they did not know they needed, yet.]

Engineers are not optimists, they are pragmatists, mix in a bit of venture capitalist, and you get a pretty unsentimental logic. Decide what you are going to do, decide on metrics that really measure achievement. Deploy resources to achieve this, measured against strict milestones based on actual achievement, not just measures of resources input. Constantly reality check what you are doing. Avoid the disengagement from reality that comes from building a product that no one wants, or will not achieve what you are after.

But government policy does not work like this. Public policy generally starts with a very unclear idea of what it is setting out to achieve, and even this is fuzzy and changeable, based more on political defensibility than rigourous logic. With only an unclear idea of what is the target, it is unsurprising that there is a lack of meaningful metrics to measure achievement. The political debate around the achievement of these fuzzy objectives is also suboptimal. Those responsible for delivery often have very polarised interests. For example those closest to delivery can always argue that they are not delivering because they need more resources. In reality they are unlikely to get more resources, so this is an undefeatable excuse. Those further away from delivery can always argue that there were adequate resources but they have been used ineffectively.

There is also the elephant in the room that in effect although we all like to talk about a few major initiatives, in reality most resource is already committed to ongoing work, or lost as unproductive overhead, or lost to chaff type work. You add a new task to someone's job,
but they already had a lot of work to do, = ongoing work
they need to train up and claim for expenses = unproductive overhead
and you ask them to give you detailed reports every month and answer your questions = chaff type work.

net result is not much progress.

For a commercial business, you might deploy software engineers to your new project, but in doing so you would close down the work they were doing before.

Most of what government does is not of much interest to anyone, and certainly not to politicians, but by and large it does need to be done.

If government is to become more focussed on delivery then it needs to have a far better understanding of what it is actually doing at the moment. Then it is simply a case of deciding what to do, what not to do, what to do differently. There need to be clear objectives, and clear metrics for delivery.

The debate has to move from simply being one about how much is spent to one on what outcomes are being achieved. We should challenge any claims about money being spent, asking instead what it has achieved.

The political debate also needs to move from one of easy soundbites, the media needs to move from kneejerk criticism based on juicy quotes and not evidence, the public needs to engage more deeply, realising that government services are complicated and difficult, but still capable of improvement over time. Modern technology makes government more transparent. It makes everything more transparent. It should be easier to see potentially useful metrics and apply them.

If this system of clear objectives, clear metrics, measurement against actual delivery of outcomes can be achieved then as a systems change it will lead to exponential growth. If government were only 5% more effective each year, in sixteen years it would be twice as good, and in twenty four years it would be three times as good, and in thirty years it would be four times as good. The real gains are to be had from improving systems and not from just allocating resources. But every step in improving systems is a step away from how it used to be done, for many of us it is a step into the unknown and unknowable. But we live in a competitive world, the only businesses that continue to thrive are the ones that are nimble and adaptable. They always live on the brink of the unknown. We should distrust the overly familiar and unchallenging.




Susan Boyle

This has certainly been the year of Susan Boyle, now enjoying phenomenal success. But what will happen to her when she loses her looks?

dawn of the sofa surfers

If an iPod was the size of a room and cost over £1Million then they probably would not sell all that many.

I have used laptop computers for years. However combining a laptop with unmetered, always on wifi, so that you have wire free internet connectivity, and an internet that actually has compelling content, puts all the balls in the right place. Sitting on a sofa browsing the internet suddenly adds a whole new dimension to entertainment that was not available before.

Personally I do a bit of browsing, a bit of keeping up with my RSS feeds, a bit of exploring Google suggested blog articles, a bit of watching TED talks. I don't really know what the rest of my family does, but they do manage to find content that interests and engages them.

Being able to sit on your own sofa with a laptop is a different experience from sitting at a desk, however ergonomic your chair is. You sit on a sofa when you want to relax, you might read a book, browse a magazine, chat with friends, watch TV. It is time for yourself, when you are not some corporate drone chasing deadlines.

I recently bought a second laptop, one of the new aluminium Apple Macintosh laptops from the Apple Refurb store. There is just something about the design of the unibody laptops, suddenly everyone in the house wants one. It is a pleasure to handle, it is lovely to touch and stroke, it has a pleasing heft, the trackpad is much more intuitive and easy to use, the screen is a thing of beauty. It is almost as if they set out to create a magazine sized piece of aluminium jewelery. In the past I might spend the evening sitting on the sofa with the one and only family laptop sofa surfing. Now that we have two, I can be sitting on the sofa, with my wife, while we both sofa surf. Similarly anyone else in the family, if they get onto the laptop can spend their time sofa surfing.

It is not a new observation, but I believe that increasingly tv is a background to other more engaging and personalised content that we are browsing on laptops. So the television might be on, with four people in the room, but a couple of them are also browsing the internet, while one of them is reading, and someone else is flicking through a magazine, and all the time they are engaging in low level chit chat whenever one of them comes across something the others might like, so suddenly they are all watching a Youtube video of an acapella version of poker face.

Enjoy the future!






Designing Futures

Dieter Rams the designer was interviewed by Gestalten to promote a new book and exhibition, and despite a lifetime in design, he said that the challenge for design in future should be around designing how we live, rather than around designing stuff.

http://www.gestalten.com/motion/clipHiRes?id=116

Acquiring stuff is easy, particularly now. We can all accumulate so much stuff that our houses are unpleasantly cluttered, countering our preferred minimalist aesthetic. Or we pay money to have our possesions held in storage, making space to accumulate more.

There can even be a sort of fetishistic love of stuff, the super luxury goods, "design" goods. But I think these are dead ends. An unproductive manifestation of materialism.

The real challenge is for us to determine how we will live. It is surprising that when there are a million designs for chairs, we have so few models for how we might live. There is probably a whole academic discipline, but rather than do any actual research, working for first principles.

We can arrange ourselves formally or informally.

So formal arrangements would be places like work, or voluntary organisations where people are ascribed clear roles and are expected to perform a certain function. In some situations money would be a factor, in others it would not. Another example would be where there are rules or conventions, such as how to behave in meetings or how to play a sport.

Then there are informal arrangements where there are not clear rules. These would include families, or friendships, and potentially flat sharing.

Asking a few questions to figure out how these things work -
why would people participate ?
what do they get out of it?
how do you make them work better?

why would people participate ?
often because they want to, or they have little choice. Looking at a family the adults get something out of the arrangements, mutual support, the pleasure of each other's company and a shared vision. For children participation in the family is generally less optional, but they would share the same benefits, although they would arguably be putting less into the family.

what do they get out of it?
sticking with the family, it is generally an easier way to live. People have scope to specialise, so that they can support the family doing what they do best, and avoid doing what they do less well. Many people find working together more natural and reassuring than working alone. Most people will enjoy company. Over a period of time, a diversity of approaches will reduce risk and increase robustness. Leading to an important point, a lot of the benefits of a family will accrue over a period of time, but they are hard to quantify.

how do you make them work better?
You can make any of these arrangements work better by appreciating the contribution of others more, by communicating effectively about issues, by establishing mechanisms to resolve disputes and reach important agreements. Ultimately there may need to be the sanction of excluding someone, but in practice this should be rare. I think that there does need to be a shared vision where the arrangement is informal. In theory where people are simply paid to work for an organistion, it really does not matter whether they are aligned to the goals of the organisation as long as their incentives direct them productively, but in practice we do seem to be moving away from that sort of purely theoretical model. It is difficult to imagine someone who was completely at odds with an employer, motivated solely by money, being a useful employee. Work nowadays requires too much discretion to be comfortable with people not sharing some overall vision.

Looking forward, I do think that we need to place a lot more emphasis on how we all live together. At the moment it is one of those things like air that we don't see, even although it is all around us.

Perhaps we do need to be returning to extended families all living together in the same house. But if we are, then we need to design our houses differently.

Perhaps we need to move to portfolio careers where people have much more job mobility and can take extended periods out of the work place, supported by family.

Perhaps we need to have a much more flexible idea about what is actually a meaningful contribution to society.

The existing stereotypes no longer work. The welfare state has created a system that incentivises dependency. We need to move to a system that incentivises independence, creativity, flexibility and imagination.

I am not sure that we can afford, or should tolerate a society where all the menial work is performed by university educated migrants, when our own population is unemployed or underemployed, passively consuming and disengaged from society.

We need to re-engineer society and the incentives that it offers so that everyone is able and encouraged to contribute as they can, while people are supported when they need to be. I don't think that breaking society down into the individual atoms of individuals is really helpful in this. There is a limit to what the state can achieve. People should be able to find support amongst their family and friends for the bulk of their issues, with the state providing support as a last resort. Where the state needs to step in it should be seen as a failure of society, and we should seek to reengineer society better.

All this will only work where there is a shared vision of what our society is about, what it should achieve, and where it is going. That is why the war gave society purpose and cohesion. Perhaps if we can create a clear enough vision of success for our future society we can knit together our individual atoms into something far greater than the individual parts.

I want something I can use from this

A paradigm is a metaphor that lets us see patterns in complexity. This is valuable because it helps us to interpret the past and predict the future, rather than perceiving events as random white noise.

By definition a paradigm is imperfect. It is a metaphor, it is not the real thing. It will explain some things, it will not explain others. A paradigm should be testable, if it bears up reasonably well then it is a usable paradigm, if it consistently fails, then it is a bad paradigm.

However a paradigm is can be used positively or negatively.

Negative paradigms are a form of fatalism; I am getting older and not so good at things, things always go wrong for me, people seems nice at first but once you get to know them they let you down, there is no point in trying because it won't work anyway. You can do all you like to keep fit but just get run over by a bus anyway. These negative paradigms often delight in their counterintuitive nature or rely on anecdotal evidence of people who were disproportionately lucky or unlucky.

Often these paradigms are a form of comfort, they tell you that there is no point in making an effort in future because whether you make an effort or not, the end result will be the same anyway. You have lost nothing by not making an effort in the past, because it would not have made any difference anyway.

There are positive paradigms too. These more actively and objectively seek to find a pattern in observed events that can be used to positive effect for example by modest changes in behaviour.

For example you might observe that people with a positive attitude and can do attitude at work tend to do better than those who are obviously negative, you could accept this as a general rule and then seek to demonstrate the behaviours that you have observed in others even if you do not feel that it is naturally you. Assuming you want to do better at work.

You might observe that groups of cyclists are more visible and hence safer than lone cyclists, and act upon it by cycling with others whenever you can. Assuming you want to be safe on the road.

Often these things can be little perceptual tricks, things that don't cost much effort but have a disproportionate effect. Things that make one example stand out above the others. Things that are associated with better long term outcomes.

Rather than using paradigms as an excuse for inaction, you can use them as a means of changing your own behaviour to achieve your own goals. It follows that you should have explicit goals, you should objectively observe/record relevant events, you should attempt to establish useful paradigms, you should amend your behaviour to test these paradigms, and be prepared to start all over again. Embedding the useful behaviours and constantly seeking out new paradigms and behaviours.

The world is one of constant competition against others - for example for jobs, and against an indifferent nature - for example seeking a long and healthy life.

You are born with what you are born with, but it is your paradigms and resultant behaviours that are what is really you, they are what you have actively chosen. What you do today makes you who you are tomorrow.

why democracy is over-rated

Within the western world we have always taken our particular society to be the model to which other, less developed societies should aspire. With the current economic depression, and building climate change, it is increasingly impractical that other countries should aspire to exactly our model of consumerist democratic capitalism.

The sacred cow amongst all the features of our society has always been democracy. It is difficult to defend consumerism or capitalism as something that starving people should aspire to, but democracy is surely all that is right about our society.

Democracy is invaluable in a post conflict society, unfortunately those are not that rare. It is useful in polarised debates.

However democracy is ridiculously clunky. You are allowed to vote a few times each decade. Is that really the best we can do.

It creates all sorts of distorting behaviour.
It encourages ridiculous and polarised arguments.
It encourages careerist politicians to align themselves with political parties, rather than their own ideals.
It places undue reliance on the small number of people who can combine popular support with the technical ability to govern to an adequate standard.

For a long time we have been defending democracy as a least bad system, rather than one that was actually good in itself.

But the bulk of the world is not run through democracy. I live within a small family, it is not democratic, nor is my wider family. My working environment is not democratic, nor is the community organisation that I am involved in.

That is not to say that people's concerns are ignored, or that things are never put to the vote.

All of these systems operate on a common sense sort of approach, where clear roles are ascribed, people have the opportunity to raise concerns, if you want something done, you will probably have to do a fair chunk of it yourself, and finally people have broadly similar abilities to do something.

These are not situations where there is a lot of telling other people to do something. There is a lot of asking people, influencing people, supporting people, being given permission to do things, etc etc.

Practical experience even supports this. If you are in a group that is forever putting things to the vote, then you are in a group that is frankly disfunctional. If you are in a group then there should be sufficient common ground on what you as a group are actually about, that issues that are so divisive and binary that they require a vote, should be remarkably rare.

The answer to a post democracy society is not that we should all be voting more often. Within America where they vote on propositions it is worse than anarchy. Democracy makes appalling decisions all the time, Hitler was democratically elected.

The people who make decisions should be the ones who have invested the time and effort to gain some understanding of the issue, and have some investment in the outcome. Clearly this has to be wider than just a particular interest group, demonstrating their venality. Recently British MPs seem to have been demonstrating far more venality than public interest.

There is a good supply of people willing to represent the public interest, probably never enough. These people are like gold dust within our modern super complex society. They are not motivated by greed or power, but the simple human desire to make things better, to leave things somehow better than they found them, or look after things that they know to be valuable.

These people are the capacity within our society, and they need to be nurtured and supported. They need to be offered opportunities, and development, given confidence and validation.

We want to live in a society that is more finely tuned to us. We do not all want to wear standard Mao jackets, whether they fit or not, all drive Model T Ford's in black, whether we like the colour or not.

I live in a small country, but I keep on getting told that all manner of things need to be administered on a regional basis, and even a region is far too big an area in which to make generalisations. Just as consumers of goods we demand near infinite variety and customisation, from houses to tee-shirts, as consumers of public goods, we demand a highly nuanced product. One that reflects where we live, our asprirations, how we see ourselves.

And between the public good and the private goods, there is a third area. The times when we are not delivering a public or a private service. Do we stop and offer advice to a traveller with a map, do we smile at our neighbours, do we tidy up the spilt rubbish, do we volunteer within our community. We increasingly need to operate within all these different realms if we are to create the kind of society that we want to live in.

That is not to say that these changes are onerous. We instinctively want to live in a village with a common village green, where we know everyone, and everyone knows our name, we want to know what is going on, and have people take an interest in our well-being.

Strangely the public sector seems to be falling behind the private in providing this sort of nuanced neighbourhood. Look at Amazon, RedBubble, LiveJournal. We want to create little online neighbourhoods, to look out for each other, insult each other from time to time, disagree certainly, but we keep on coming back to the honeypot of human interaction. That is why media is dead. How slow to watch a film, or tv programme. We want to be there with our friends, real or virtual. We want to stop to get a cup of tea, then make jokes as they occur to us. The interactivty with people you enjoy is now the killer product.

I have long argued that any meetings that are not enjoyable are unsustainable, any job that is not enjoyable is unsustainable. If you have to bully people into doing something you can only do it until they find another option.

While the private sector is increasingly offering this sort of nuanced, interactive, fun, engagement, the public sector is stuck with old models. The public sector still works on democracy, struggles with the idea of focus groups and qualitative evidence gathering, what do they tell us, are they undemocratic, why not stick a user group/board on top, would that fix it.

What is required is truly decentralised decision making. The centre has a function, but it is not the top of the hierarchy. It is merely one node within the structure. A node with more connections than most, granted, but merely a node that specialises in facilitating and co-ordinating other nodes within a network.

Through my life I have always thought that the real decision making power lay somewhere just outside my direct experience, whenever I accessed one source of power, I realised just how limited and constrained it was. They were able to influence, and make decisions granted, but not on a whim, and only within certain parameters. Where ever you go to, the real power seemed to lie somewhere just out of reach, just beyond the horizon.

That is because all the nodes just have different types of power and influence. None are absolute. The accounting department is no more or less important than the chief executive's office.

We need to change the narrative, away from the cynical red-top and Private Eye narrative that those who make decisions are venal and self serving. The people who make decisions are ourselves. The barrier to entry is not money or who you know. It is the patience and diligence of getting involved and accepting you have power but like a cyclist that power is only proportionate to how much effort you put in, how much you actually do yourself.

A world of cyclists is always safer than a world of motorists. Because the effort and energy and decisions are decentralised and spread out. It is more difficult for cyclists to make bad decisions, they make bad decisions more slowly, and suffer the consequences more directly.

We need to re-engineer our world where we are not cynics but participants. Where it is our time and energy that drive decisions. Where we know things could be better, and we work towards that. There is a role for government in this, for the private sector, but the real motor needs to be the people asking for more power, not politicians trying to find someone to take it.

[attached video by Bruce Sterling is on a vaguely similar theme, and is incredibly worth listening to.

http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2009/07/video-from-reboot-11/

]

capacity

when is something too big?

Yesterday we struggled to get to where we were going in the car because a major attraction was so large that all the local roads were backed up with cars trying to get there.

Then we struggled to find a parking space in a nearby village/town where we were going to eat lunch. Despite all the available parking spaces being taken, it was not at all obvious where all the people associated with these cars were, the shops certainly were not busy, we had the restaurant virtually to ourselves.

The maths are not that complicated, any business will need customers, but the number of customers is dependent on the number that will or can get to you. For a bricks and mortar business, they need to be able to get parked or be able to get to you via some other mode of transport, or even just live within walking distance.

For those trying to encourage economic growth, perhaps the best idea is not to focus on supporting businesses, but investing in the infrastructure that lets people access a bricks and mortar business. Putting on more trains, or better buses, or more parking, lets more people get there, let the business focus its efforts on making them want to come.

Too often the problem is a pinch point, the businesses are fine, but there is no way that enough customers could actually visit to sustain them. The importance of modal shift in traffic usage is key. Old fashioned town centres just cannot function if they rely on individual people each driving there, then seeking a parking space. The logistics of the space required to park all the cars driven by enough people to sustain all the shops is absurd. Whereas a few extra train carriages come at relatively little cost in terms of space and infrastructure, but bring in hundreds of extra customers.

graft

Often the only approach that is going to be successful is just sheer hard graft.

We recently had a temporary member of staff, who was also finishing off studying for a legal qualification, and I have never seen anyone work so hard. Everything she was given she just got on with it, when she had a spare minute she pulled out her text books and worked through them.

At the same time I was studying a criminal paralegal course, and I tried to adopt the same attitude, just putting in the hours studying. Applying an element of critical thought, always asking if I was studying the right thing, in the most appropriate way. By the end I had put a lot of hours into the course, and got a result that was much better than I had hoped for.

By stripping out ideas of talent or aptitude, just seeing the issue as one of graft, applying the hours of effort required, constantly making decisions on how best to use your time resource, the emotions get drawn out of the process. It just becomes a more straightforward transaction. There is not a sense of entitlement, or that life is not fair, just a sense that you need to get on with it.

There is a similar lesson in Geoff Colvin's work on Talent is Overrated
http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/talent-is-overrated

Although media coverage has focussed on Malcolm Gladwell's book on Outliers, the Geoff Colvin book actually looks to be the better of the two. It stresses the value of deliberative practice, where you deliberately focus on the areas outwith your comfort zone and practice those, all the time getting feedback on how you are doing, until you finally get better at them. It even puts a figure of 10,000 hours on the time commitment required to be really remarkably talented.

Of course it is always possible to identify people that just seem to have a natural aptitude, but once you start to look into it, by and large their aptitude has been obtained via a huge amount of prior application. I overheard a conversation on the train, some architects chatting, and they mentioned the notebook that one of their number kept, it was packed with hugely detailed and wonderful drawings of architectural features that he had seen, they all kept such notebooks, but his stood out as incredibly impressive. Yet he kept the notebook to himself, never showed it to anyone. It was not a product in itself, it was just part of his creative process.

The designer's notebooks at the ECA were one of the most impressive things there. The endless iteration of ideas.

But what is talent? If we follow the definition that we are talking about a remarkable ability in something, then by definition that is all we are talking about. Media functions to bring to our attention people who can do remarkably well things that we can only do badly.

But what intrinsic merit is there in such talent. Does it benefit the individual? Does it benefit society?

We are not failures because we are not remarkable, we have made other choices, those hours went into something else. Often caring for others. But we can learn from people who just put in the hours of study, who did not just get lucky. People who jot down things, and organise their lives.

Perhaps the remarkable thing about remarkable people is that underneath they are actually not so much different from ourselves, they just put their time into different priorities. The question we should be asking is how wisely we did spend those hours, and how wisely we will use the hours before us.

Difficult Decisions

Difficult Decisions - people often talk about having to make difficult decisions. Should I leave the security of this job for something more satisfying, should leave an unsatisfying relationships.

However when you start to think about it, in technical terms these decisions are generally not actually that difficult. The information is probably more qualitative than quantitative, but it is well established, you generally have time to gather more information if it would be helpful. Generally it is a case of deciding between a very small number options, options which are disimilar enough to make it difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

However we make these sorts of decisions all the time, every day. Often what characterises Difficult Decisions is that they seem to be optional decisions, there is the default option to continue as you are, and the decision to do something different. Accordingly the decision is not a fork in the road, it is a choice of carrying on along the well established motorway that you are on, or to consider the little known and poorly signposted alternative route, that sounds like it may be appealing, but you cannot see far down that road, it twists and turns, and although it sounds appealing, you really have no way of knowing where it will lead.

What makes these decisions difficult is not that they are technically difficult. They are not actually that technically complicated.
They are assymetrical - you understand one option far better than you understand the other.
They are not time pressured - you can continue as you are, in effect make no decision.
They involve you in doing things you are uncomfortable with.

That is at the root of the issue, when we are talking about Difficult Decisions we are instead talking about unpalatable choices. There is always the default, the do nothing option.

But we are decision making creatures. When we are too lazy, or scared, or complacent to make decisions then, in a way we cease to be. We become part of the generalised mass, neither good nor bad, just drifting along.

Life is too short to drift by failing to make any decisions. There are worse things than failing, there is failing to try.

Part of what I like about investing in shares is that it forces you to make decisions, it keeps you in the habit of making decisions. You have to decide on a strategy, to refine and review your strategy, every month I decide on what to invest my money in. Investing in shares you just have to accept that you cannot have perfect knowledge. You are balancing risk and reward, the greater the uncertainty the higher the potential reward, you can consider other's expertise, but in the end you have to follow you own judgement. You need to accept that you will never make the optimal decisions all the time. Share investing just does not work like that. If you had perfect knowledge then you would just invest all your money in the most profitable share for the next year, and sell it all when it reached its peak. No one does that, no one can. Almost by definition every investing decision is less than optimal. You are accepting failing, accepting that you will lose money, others will have done better than you. I suspect that Game Theory has something sage to say on this sort of thing.

It is good for the soul engaging in the challenge of investing, teaching yourself through your results, the expertise of others, introspection. What has gone well, what has gone badly, what should I do more of, what should I do less of.

We are born to learn, to try and fail, pick ourselves up again. That is to be alive.

what studying has taught me


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Towards a new economy

It is pretty much a cliche of measuring performance, that by setting indicators you end up distorting activity to produce the desired results in your chosen indicators, with the associated risks. For example there are perverse incentives, if you are paid to complete tasks, then you are encouraging people to complete the straightforward tasks that they know they can do quickly.

Inevitably it is very difficult to choose good indicators, or metrics.

You might measure Inputs - that is the amount that you are putting into the system, the amount of spending, work, effort. But there is no guarantee that measuring Inputs will actually tell you anything about how effective any of these inputs actually are. There is no merit in being busy if none of it is achieving anything.

Alternatively you might measure Outputs - that is the amount of things that you are generating. This sounds better, if you are producing lots of widgets, then that must be a good thing. But if they are defective widgets, or widgets that no one wants to buy. But what about services, are you answering lots of phone calls, but doing it very badly. Is it really better to be sending out lots and lots of emails. Should my boss pay me more because I am actually sending him millions of emails?

Alternatively you might measure Outcomes - that is some sort of measure of the change that you are seeking to effect. In business terms it is easy enough, it is profit or market share. In government or a service within a business it is less easy. Obviously the Ministry of Defence wants to win battles, but how can you disaggregate that down to individual contributions. Perhaps there are underlying trends that mean that you will never achieve the high level outcomes, but you still need to direct energy towards them.

Intuitively we can tell when people are working well, it is about commitment, innovation, quality of service, reliability, adaptability, resilience. It is just that a simple set of indicators are very bad at capturing this. They make us think that we can understand something without really understanding it, a shortcut avoiding the effort of doing some thinking and research.

The economy has changed a lot recently. Perhaps part of the problem was that we did not really understand it, but we thought that a few indicators would tell us all we needed to know. But the nature of indicators is that they skew activity.

So we thought that rising house prices were good, and sure enough they went up. We thought that low inflation/interest rates were good, and they stayed low. We thought that low unemployment was good, and it stayed low.

But we were not really thinking about more structural issues like the balance of payments, like the affordability of credit, like the resilience of the economy.

Economics is unscientific in that it tends to assume that all other things being equal doing X will lead to Y. When in real life all other things do not remain equal.

Although we are entering a new era, economic policy has not. It still seems to be fixed on making things go back to the way they used to be, but perhaps we might learn a few lessons, so we don't need to change much, just iron out a few wrinkles and things can just go back to the way that they were.

Why not look at some different indicators, our streets are full of litter, generations of families are disengaged from work, most people have minimal engagement with nature or a wider society, we are slowing killing off other species, and ultimately our planet, we are re-enacting the tragedy of the commons on a global scale.

When we are tackling these issues with all our strength, then perhaps we should worry about house prices and dinner parties. Common sense tells us that the economic progress was destroying our planet. We need to adopt some better perspective, and let that inform what we do.

Supply and Demand



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random stuff I like

I like

moleskine icons
http://pica-ae.deviantart.com/art/Moleskine-Icons-91551480

Lamy 2000 four colour pen
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lamy-L401-2000-multi-colour-pen/dp/B000UTKMDQ/ref=sr_gnr_fkmr?ie=UTF8&qid=1238308458

Paperchase small noto notebook
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Paperchase-Small-Journal-Black-Design/dp/B000UJDWKQ/ref=pd_sim_dbs__7


do I believe in Kondratiev Waves?

Further to my recent blog entry, do I believe in Kondratiev Waves?

Yes and no.

  • I believe they are a useful descriptive tool, and as good a model as any,
  • however they clearly have little or no predictive power. Recent history suggests that the wave has a period of around fifty years, but it is exceedingly difficult to fit postwar economic history to the model, and intuitively it seems unlikely that the model would hold true for both the nineteenth and twenty first century.

I have however used it as an aid to thinking about investing. See the attached diagram, literally on the back of an envelope.

envelope

Assuming that
  • you buy only for capital value, not for dividends,
  • value is global world value, individual shares, markets and countries, could contradict trends.
  • shares increase in value over the economic cycle - the cycle is around fifty years long
  • you want the cash value of your shares to increase over time
  • smaller bull and bear markets will operate against these overall trends
  • any action you take is infinitessimal and will not affect markets

If you buy at point A, the top of the market, then you will have to wait for nearly fifty years, according to the Kondratiev wave, until you can sell again at a profit! If you buy at the bottom of the market point B, then you will never lose money when you sell.

I believe that we are at a point between A and B, probably on the early stages of the fall. On that theory, now is not a time to buy shares if you want capital growth. The situation is likely to change when;
  • we near the bottom of the dip
  • share purchase becomes the most advantageous asset class because other asset classes become even less attractive. For example if interest rates are substantially less than inflation, then investing in shares might be worthwhile, even if you still expect them to fall in value. You can always get a dividend from shares and you have not lost value until you actually sell them. If you can control when you sell, then you can recoup money. Investing in a bank, unless interest rates exceed inflation, you are losing money. There is no equivalent scope to recoup losses by timing withdrawl from a bank. At the moment though, you would be losing money faster by buying shares, and you might need to invest for circa fifty years to see a profit on current share purchases.

My view is that investors should continue to invest, but for the time being put your money into the bank. The time to move back into shares is some time away, but the relationship between inflation and interest rates could make it worthwhile to invest sooner. The current emphasis should be on retaining value, and caution, against the background of a falling market.

The small investor is exceedingly unlikely to make money in the current market, but they should continue to set aside money for when the situation becomes less unfavourable and keep monitoring individual and overall share values.

Making good decisions in difficult situations

Making good decisions in difficult situations

People do not like making decisions, that is why we all have our routines, and little personal rules and foibles, so we already have default options for all the decisions we expect to face.

This works well, you are not reinventing the world every day, that would be exhausting, you are following your routine, free to focus on performing to your best.

However there are difficult situations;
  • boiling frog situations - it is said that if you put a frog in a cold pan of water, then slowly bring it to the boil, the frog will never jump out, because the change is too gradual.
  • radically new situations - situations that are clearly out of the ordinary, where you have no precedents, or personal experience of what is likely to be a good decision, or what will be a bad one. Most emergencies contain an element of this.
  • time pressured decisions - these are where you are given less time that you are comfortable with to make a decision. Salesmen use this technique to pressure you into making a decision.
  • peer pressure situations - when everyone else apparently behaves in a certain way, it is very difficult to make a contrary decision.
  • inability to understand - you are being presented with information, you don't understand it but you don't know how significant it is.
  • stressed times - stress, extreme emotion, tiredness, drink, extreme recent events, all these can alter the prism through which we view the world, and make it difficult to think as you normally would. We tend to over emphasize the significance of recent events.

To throw in some examples:
  • it is the middle of the night, you smell smoke, do you investigate or go back to sleep.
  • you have been working steadily increasing hours, and are offered some extra work that might get you promoted. Do you say yes or no? Is there another option?
  • the policeman quickly explains your rights and is keen to get on with the interview, did you understand them, or do you ask him to explain them to you again slowly?
  • after a morning of negotiating the salesman can offer you a deal today, only, on the car you were looking at, but it is not quite the model you wanted. Do you buy it, or do you walk away?
  • everyone says buy housing, you would be mad not to. Do you buy a house you cannot really afford?
  • your boss has just given you a reprimand, then a colleague asks you for some help with something that they have left to the last minute. Do you give them a piece of you mind, it will make you feel better?

Hopefully you can identify that you face a difficult decision, and the elements that make it difficult. You are in an unfamiliar environment and cannot rely on experience, your judgement is likely to be impaired, you are under pressure to make a decision that suits others, or others are already making.

But what is right for the long term.

Consider risk, balance the short term cost/benefit to you, against the long term cost/benefit.

So humiliating your colleague would be gratifying now, but the long term consequences might not be great. So investigating that smell of smoke is tiresome, but it could save your life. It is well worth enduring small short term costs, if there is any risk of a serious long term downside. If inaction could cost you your life, you need to do something.

Where possible do early research, and decide on key issues in advance, even if they are quite arbitrary, pay no more than X for a car, wait an extra fifteen minutes for you date, then try phoning.

Always distrust being pressured to make a decision, either by others, or by your own emotional investment in your previous decisions, or your self image. So if you are being time pressured, often it is to make a bad decision. If you are getting the hard sell, then often it is not a good decision for you. You always need to be willing to walk away, no matter how much you have invested. So you have spent a morning chatting to that car salesman, but he cannot offer you the car you want. Be willing to walk away. You are a savvy investor but you have lost lots of money on a share that has fallen in value, do you invest in more, to reduce your average purchase price, or is that throwing good money after bad.

If you don't understand something, insist that it is explained in terms you do understand. It is their job to communicate effectively and clearly, it is not your job to speculate what jargon and technical terms might mean. Just because something seems familiar, does not mean you really understand it, if it is important, get it explained, don't stop asking until you understand. Agreeing to things you do not understand is never the smart option.

Give yourself time to make a decision, presented with a big decision, ask for time to sleep on it, or discuss it with your partner. Ask them to explain again anything you do not understand. Distrust evasiveness and pressure. Walk away from people you do not trust or respect. Don't spend time or money on incompetent people, businesses, products, or processes, walk away.

Create a mechanism to get a wider perspective. Often these situations trade on you not being able to step back. A five minute break in a difficult meeting can make the world of difference, a walk at lunch time, walking the dog, chatting to some people about something completely different.

Listen to other views, especially if they contradict your own. Think about what they say.

Be willing to do some research if you don't know enough. Offered your dream job, check out with some people working there what it is actually like. Check out reviews for that new computer you have your eye on, do the people that own one, really rate it so much.

At the start of this posting I outlined how people avoid making decisions, but I omitted the biggest single way that people avoid making decisions. People just copy what everyone else does. We all do it all the time. But making good decisions in difficult times relies on being awkward, putting in the research, asking difficult decisions, being willing to swim against the tide. Better to be the first person on the lifeboat when the boat is not sinking, than arriving just in time to see the last lifeboat leaving.

Be prepared to stand out from the crowd on occasion, honestly being slightly embarrassed is not the biggest risk we face.

reality has once again reasserted itself

I have been relatively remiss with blogging recently.

After making vast in-roads into my plans to blitz the world of arts and ideas, with gazillions of pitches of every subject under the sun, things have rather slowed down to a more ponderous rate after the initial frenzy. That is not to say that there was anything wrong with my original thinking. However for the first couple of weeks, I was relatively quiet at work, had an extra day off each week, and was not doing much at the weekend. Accordingly it was relatively easy to find the time to do all this pitching and working up of creative ideas.

Reality has once again reasserted itself, in the various dimensions that it is prone to.

1 Work
2 Creativity
3 Blogging and web-siting

At work, things seem to have moved up to a rather hectic pace, so hectic that it all rather zen, just figure out what I need to do, then do it. Scant time to think, plan, wonder or worry. Hopefully things will slip down a notch or two, but things might conspire against this. I have taken on an entire other job, in addition to the admittedly light duties that I already had. I have been volunteered to do some work for senior management, which rather means that I have to do a good job of it, and I don't want to be making excuses about not getting stuff done. I don't mind, it is a chance to do some interesting stuff, and potentially get noticed. Though frankly I am a bit long in the tooth, for harbouring any great ambitions. Also I continue to come up with ideas to stretch myself, the idea that I pitched in a recent blog, for a staff seminar, will be taking place in April! and I have volunteered to take nightclasses in paralegal studies.

As ever, opportunity never comes in any planned manner, it just all arrives at once, when you are not expecting it. But with this sort of work, sometimes it it just the ability to seem calm and in control that counts, rather than actually doing anything terribly specific. I have been mindful of not working excessive hours, because at the moment I need to be productive, rather than just sitting there doing a lot. So the productive side of my brain gets burnt out after a while. Time to head home.

2 Creativity
as above, after an initial flurry, I have slowed down on the pitching like a maniac, and trying to drive up traffic to my website. Potentially you could easily spend over a day a week on those, and there just has not been the time lately. However I do think that the underlying principles of pitching broadly and keeping track of what happens are sound enough.

Of the initial pitches, the most productive to date seems to be the seminar idea, which has been accepted, and will be taking place. I do feel that my jokes are decent enough, but I've really not found an outlet that might take them yet. I might take a day off at the end of the week to catch up some of this creative stuff.

3 Blogging and web-siting
I suppose it would be easy enough to justify any amount of unproductive trawling around the web as being either research, or making comments in the hope of driving up traffic to your own website.

Accordingly the lack of huge amounts of time ambling the information superhighway probably won't set back civilisation unduly.

I have recognised that it is useful to have permanent links to my individual blogs, just in case I, or anyone else wants to put a link to them somewhere. I have accordingly been doing some of that boring behind the scenes stuff to set up permalinks on my blog. Nothing terribly noticeable, but useful to have.

I have also been a little remiss in blogging, but I do find it a useful way to straighten out my thoughts, and just keep in the habit of writing, so I'm doing a few blog entries this weekend, when there are bound to be other more productive things that I could be doing instead.

In conclusion, that is about that for the moment. I suppose getting somewhere is really about tempering what you want with what you are managing to do, and coming up with a decent compromise somewhere in between.

In praise of pottering

Pottering is a greatly undervalued activity.

I suppose that the common expectation is that all life is about bashing out widgets, a task requiring neither imagination nor creativity, and so we do no need to potter, or to reflect, we merely get on with bashing out more widgets. We might periodically take time to sharpen our widget bashing tools, or plan our critical path for most effective bashing of widgets.

But we certainly do not have any time for pottering. Pottering is anathema. Pottering is the lazy inefficient waste of time, falling away from our puritan protestant work ethic, our idle hands lead us into the devil's work.

But is this really true. I suppose if you paid someone to work for you, you want to see them bashing out those little widgets as fast as they can. But reducing everything to bashing out widgets presumes that there is no quality dimension, it is purely a case of quantity. The more widgets the better.

But for many things there is not an infinite demand for our widgets. How many emails a day does our boss really want us to send him. Or the quality dimension is paramount. Is more blogging really better blogging.

Which all, in, a round about, way, leads me back to pottering. Because pottering is the antithesis to quantity. Pottering is the complete absence of quantity. In fact pottering can regularly deliver no perceptible outputs what so ever.

So why is pottering any good?

Because if you are ever to be truly great at anything you will probably need to spend a great deal of time pottering. It is the pottering time that differentiates the tradesman from the craftsman, the labourer from the artist. It is that ability to just step back, allow yourself to take a line for a walk, or let the line take you for a walk. To put words after each other just to see if they take you anywhere interesting. Fiddle about with something, take it apart, put it back together again, see if you can make it work a little better.

Just imagine the craftsman pottering away in his workshop, putting together a few off cuts to make a children's toy, sharpening much loved tools, browsing a catalogue, or sketching out impractical ideas.

Just imagine the gardener weeding slowly while just wondering how to arrange some new plants, or rearranging pots while she thinks about colour schemes.

Just imagine the endless hours tinkering with websites, or browsing for ideas for your blog.

I suppose the point is that pottering is defensible, we all need time to potter a bit, particularly around the things we love doing. The real art is in extracting the odd nugget from the pottering, making good use of the nuggets.

Perhaps what we need is a better methodology for productive pottering. Perhaps what we need is a better articulation of the relationship between pottering and bashing out widgets. Ideally they are in harmony, two sides of the same coin. We should not feel guilty that we are not always in the same mode. It is part of our strength.

clench and relax


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what is the point of blogging?

Well, what is the point of blogging? I've been writing these blog entries for quite a while now, erraticaly of late, admitedly.

I suppose, at its most basic, I like writing stuff down, I find it a useful way to order my thoughts. It also helps to lodge ideas in my head, so that I can come back to them later.

It is also useful to keep myself in the habit of writing, just putting one word after another, is something of an art. Like most art, the art is in making it look easy and effortless.

I've mentioned before, for blogs, I stick strictly to the rule that they are written at one sitting, and once checked, they are uploaded and are immune from subsequent revision.

Looking back, I have worried away at some topics. I don't feel that I have really arrived anywhere useful thinking about criminology, maybe it is a topic for exploration through some short science-fiction stories. Crime and punishment seem quite straightforward, with issues in black and white, and right and wrong, but once you start to delve it becomes clear that substantial castles are built on insubstantial sand. Crime is what we want it to be, as a society, punishment is there to make society feel good about itself, more than to make criminals feel bad about themselves, or fit for re-entry into society.

Similarly I have worried away at investing in shares. In parallel I have thought about decision making. There is a strong link between the two. In order to invest in shares you need to make all sorts of decisions, on a constant basis. You need to balance competing priorities. You need to re-prioritise sometimes, or even reappraise your underlying strategy as the market changes.

If you had perfect foresight, you would invest completely in the share that would offer the best rate of return. However you do not have perfect foresight, so you need to adopt strategies that balance risk and reward. It is like going to a horse race and betting on a wide variety of horses in the same race, in order to make a return. In order to really understand what you are doing, you need to step back, and look at your decisions not as single decisions, but as components within a strategy of decision making. You are constantly trying to find fault with your underlying theories and strategics.

To elaborate my strategies,
I have an underlying belief that across economic cycles money invested in shares will continue to offer a worthwhile return.
However the economic cycle follows a sine curve, so if you buy at the top of one wave, you will not make a real return again until the top of the next wave.
It is difficult to know where you are exactly, but it is possible to get a gut feeling. For example for many businesses it was clear that the rate of acceleration was slowing a year ago. There was a frenzy and over-extension of credit, that felt unsustainable even then. We are now past the peak, and descending down. It is likely to be years before we reach the next peak, the absolute trough could even be a couple of years away.
As a small investor, you need to reduce dealing costs to a bare minimum, through not paying much commission, and not selling often. As long as commission is low, it is okay to buy often, as it gives you the benefit of pound cost averaging.
The only time you actually make money is when you sell, similarly the only time you lose money is when you sell at a loss, or the share is wiped out.
As a small investor your other disadvantage is that it is difficult to get a sufficiently diverse portfolio. You should have six or more different shares, but it is only worthwhile selling a thousand plus pounds worth of shares. The maths is easy enough, unless you have thousands you cannot invest effectively. You are just playing at it, and are excessively exposed to risk.
I tackled this by aiming for a thousand pound target in chosen shares, starting with a few. Each month I invest a hundred pounds, and this goes to whatever is short of the thousand pound target and looks to be a sound bet at the time.
I very seldom need to chose new shares to invest in, about once a year at my current rate of investment. I therefore have time to think about shares that I am interested in.

In order to be interesting, the following are essential
the business needs to be basically well run - if I don't have confidence in the business, if I feel they are making mistakes, then I don't touch them.
the business needs to be one that has a long term future, that will respond well, and take advantage of the changes to the world economy that I foresee.
the business needs to be totally unlike anything else I already have.

I do not look at the financial details in any detail. If it is getting to the stage where the business has failed and is getting broken up, I'm not likely to come away with any money anyway, whatever the accounts said.
I don't pay much attention to short term predictions. I cannot trade at that level.
I don't worry much about the PE ratio, I reinvest dividends, so whether I get capital growth, or dividend return, makes no difference anyway.

I do keep an eye on the following
large rises and falls across the market - daily
value of shares - weekly
general media coverage - ongoing
specific coverage of that particular business - when other factors suggest that I ought to.

Because all shares in the portfolio are monitored each week, from the purchase of the first hundred, by the time I have a thousand pounds worth of shares, I have been looking at the share weekly for a good year. Within that phase of the economic cycle, I therefore have a good understanding of the degree of volatility and return that the share is offering.

To date my biggest success has been British Energy, I always felt that basically it was well run, it had too big a share of an energy market, which was short on supply, and long on demand. Takeovers were always a possibility, which makes me feel that there is a quick return option available. Also it was overly volatile, rising or falling with great vigour. Clearly the market was taking an excessively short term view, so there were always opportunities to pick up cheap shares.

My biggest loss, Bradford and Bingley. Fortunately my gut feeling was that the business had no long term future, and I sold half my flotation shares for a decent amount, particularly as they had cost me nothing initially. However as they fell, I bought more, and bought into the rights issue. They are currently wiped out, and although the government might offer some return, it is far from certain.

There are clearly lessons here, I should have trusted my instincts and sold the lot. I should have either stopped buying or sold out as they fell, to retrieve something. However in fairness, the truly dire state of affairs was never really public knowledge, and the bank would never have been technically insolvent anyway, it was a cash flow issue, not a fundamental balance sheet one. Also in truth, Bradford and Bingley were less aggressive than some of the banks that have now been bailed out by the government. They were small enough to get nationalised, but too big to be allowed to fail. Also logically, the buy to let market could be more resilient than the usual mortgage market, as people lose their houses, they still need somewhere to stay, so buy to let could benefit over the next few years, for those who got in early.

However they clearly failed the basic tests, they were badly run, they had no long term future. They should not have been in my portfolio at all.

For the future, basically, I have what I already have, I am content with my current shares. My most recent addition was a European investment trust, to add diversity, but the pound -euro exchange rate is nosediving, so any purchase of European shares would currently be very expensive.

It is clearer what I would not touch. I never liked the banks, largely on the basis that I did not understand how they made money. Additionally, any business that the government has a stake in, is bound to be unpredictable, and they do have a poor record of respecting shareholder's rights. Retail is uncertain, they are all suffering, but obviously some will survive.

I suppose big infrastructure type businesses, that are immune to the downturn, so energy, water, transport, telecoms, outsourcing, ports, things that have an innate value whatever happens, and that you cannot particularly defer spending on.

Ideally now is the time to invest broadly, a third of the shares could be wiped out, a third might do nothing much, a third could do very well. So the more broad the portfolio, and the sounder the underlying businesses the better your chances. But clearly it is not a nil risk option.

Investing in shares is an interesting mix of disciplines, you need to appraise qualitative and quantitative data, and make decisions based on both. My instinct is to rely on qualitative data more than most.

We are constantly faced with making decisions based on conflicting disciplines. For example, a lot of my initial blogging was about different prioritisation techniques, for example the Get Things Done methodology.

Over time, I have come to realise that I actually like to alter my approach slightly. Some of this is just down to boredom, but some of it is down to the changing external environment.

There is a world of difference between prioritising a variety of large tasks that often don't need to be done quickly, or small tasks that need done quickly, or a mixture of both.

Additionally there is also the situation where there are more tasks than time available, and the return on doing tasks can vary dramatically, so something that was important yesterday might be irrelevant today.

Factor in that you have different energy levels, and different opportunities at different times. This is not a single list of discrete items, but a nuanced proposed strategy to maximise benefit from a finite resource, namely your limited time and energy.

There are considerable similarities between how you might approach these two problems, getting a return on investments of money, and getting a return on investments of personal work time.

Part of the point is that there is no optimum solution, there are strategies that are more likely to succeed, but that is certainly no guarantee.

This blog has really not ended up where I expected it to, that is probably the point of blogging, you don't end up where you expect to. But you can have a rant along the way, and maybe even learn something about yourself, and how you think about things.



Is regeneration a myth?


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thoughts on criminology #2


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thoughts on housing

I have been meaning to write a blog entry on this for a while, but suspect that I'll not be able to sort my thoughts out fully.

Housing allocation is getting to be a major issue for local authorities now. In the era before right to buy, the housing stock was much easier to manage. Now the better stock tends to leave council ownership, so there are
private houses
mixed council owned, and right to buy housing
unattractive council housing that is not being bought.

For councils the main driver, metric, seems to be voids. Until there are a lot of voids, they don't seem to worry too much. However by the time that there are a lot of voids, it is probably too late, too expensive to do very much.

The problem with housing is that it is not just about providing people with a roof over their head. It is about providing them with an environment in which to live. An environment which will support or hinder them, with which they will interact positively or negatively.

Increasingly the junction between housing and police, or housing and social work is becoming key.

Councils have a reduced housing stock, so now far more of the people that they need to place are compulsory placings, and those without special needs, will find their way into private rentals, or simply stay where they are. So there is a far larger proportion of people with no choice to house, the former homeless to house, ex prisoners, etc.

There is always an element of social engineering in housing allocations. I suppose the council expects the good people to exert a positive influence. Too often it is the other way round and the negative influence becomes unbearable.

I think that the local authority needs to recognise that it is not simply in the business of renting out housing, working to the same metrics as any buy to let landlord, looking to avoid voids and ensure occupancy, with no real quality indicators.

Because their client base has changed, their business needs to change.

There needs to be vastly more emphasis on the social reintegration of people.

If the local authority believes that local residents are doing this, then it should pay them to do so. Maybe not directly, but what about a rebate on their council tax, or the provision of extra amenities for all. Put in some former homeless people, then ensure that the local police spend more time in the area, put a community pool in the local school, engage with local community groups. You need to create the sort of deal that the chinese do, a deal that works for both sides, so that it does not need to be tied up with legal paperwork, because no one would want to walk away from it.

Rather than the nimby argument, just put this somewhere else, communities should be offered such a good package that they want it.

Surprisingly Dounreay created a lot of jobs in a remote area, so by and large it was accepted positively by the local residents. With the right package, local communities will accept difficult choices. Local authorities need to treat communities as equal partners and engage with them in a meaningful way, a policy of simply imposing is wrong, imposing and listening, but not negotiating is wrong too, it needs to be a case of reaching agreement on what would be acceptable.

Because local authorities are in the business of social reintegration, they cannot just provide a roof over people's heads and hope that they get on with it. They need to create halfway houses, supported accomodation for far more people. Just as the elderly had sheltered housing, all sorts of groups would benefit from warden assisted housing. In some cases the warden would support, in some they would enforce, in most it would be a light touch that ensured neither support nor enforcement was called for. Bad things happen where no one is looking. The local authority need only have someone on the ground looking, and much will go much better.

These are modest proposals, but will require that local authorities take these issues out of their organisational silos, but until they start looking at the business they are actually in, they cannot deliver. Simply doing what you always did, simply gives you what you always got. Local authorities need to start doing different, and doing better.

thoughts on criminology

I have been reading a criminology Reader, I like to read up on the theory of a policy area when I get started, and a Reader is actually a pretty good way of doing it.

Basically a Reader assembles a lot of key texts into the same book, so that lecturers can simply ask students to get the Reader, and then they can ask them to compare the theories of different writers. Thereby saving the task of hunting down articles in obscure journals.

Well this is Criminological Perspectives - essential readings, by Eugene McLaughlin, John Muncie, and Gordon Hughes.

What do I make of it so far? It is incredibly dense, even for a reader, which obviously will assemble short texts from a variety of writers and times, on a variety of related subjects. In the past I have found readers on Cities/urbanism, a lot easier to read. That said it is useful, just not something that you can casually pick up and read. I rather like the way that reading all these different theories, is like humour, subtly rearranging your sense of what is real, and what you think.

It is clear that criminology is a discipline without compelling paradigms, that is, unlike say economics, there is not an overarching theoretical framework that everyone can at least agree on.

In part this is because it is the subject deals with people, and people are variable. In part it is because, like archaeology, the lens through which the subject is viewed, is a very subjective one. What is crime? Is middle class crime, the same as working class crime, the same as upper class crime. Is an act criminal because it harms others, or because it harms society. Is the undetected crime still crime, what about the unreported crime?

Often people use a discussion of crime as an arena to discuss something else, such as the class struggle.

On the basis of my reading so far, I am struck by the theory that crime is a prioritisation of short term gain over long term costs. Thus the drug addict is a criminal, and any ultimate conviction is not relevant. What is relevant is the ultimate harm to the individual and society. The criminal frame of mind is to live in the present, seeking short term pleasures. Thus drugs and drink associate themselves with the criminal frame of mind. That is not to say that everyone who drinks is a criminal, or that it is wrong to seek short term pleasures. However the theory is that by excessively seeking the short term, failing to apply restraint or postpone gratification, you tend more towards the criminal frame of mind. This intuitively applies to the scale that runs from decent hard working people at one end, to the feckless and selfish at the other, regardless of class or background.

Another problem in criminology is that you tend to assume that everyone operates in the way that you think you do, a sort of extended empathy. However people can live such different lives that we cannot use our own lives as a reference point. For example for those caught up in the gang culture, there are few points of similarity with most of our lives. Clearly this is not a society based on money or the pursuit of money, it is a society based on respect. These are often people who feel that they lack status and respect, and such activity is a way of gaining respect among their peers. The currency is respect and humiliation. Often the behaviour is intimidating just because it is supposed to be, it is supposed to intimidate and humiliate others, because the participants feel that they are humilated by society. When respect and humiliation are the currency, you take what you can when the opportunity presents itself. Are recent muggings really based on monetary gain, or simply the pleasure in humiliating the victim.

But the currency in that culture does not readily translate into currency in the wider society. There is a divide, you might choose to succeed in that culture, or in the wider society, but not in both. You end up deciding which tribe to belong to and which rules to play by.

Of course all the theory in the world is no good if it does not take you anywhere. On the individual level, or the tribal level, how can you change, should you change.

There has to be freedom of choice, we cannot constrain people and compel them to do as we do. However, it is possible to offer better choices. When should we do this? Most criminal activity is caused by people in their teens, most of these people are set on this path earlier in life. So improving the job prospects in an area will not directly affect the cohort you are trying to impact on, except to the extent that it affects their family environment. However improving the schooling in an area, supporting families in the area, will have a much more direct affect.

We need to look at what works, look at people who do well in the area, look at organisations that are decent, families that do well. As much effort needs to go into support for those that are not a problem, as trying to sort out those that are. Their good example, and good work can ripple outwards. Some people will always choose a criminal path, and there might well be little that they can teach us. We need to focus on those that simply run with the crowd, which is always the majority.