Monday, August 31, 2015

Weather vs Bank Holidays - 2-0

I commented mournfully on the awful weather we had last year at this time. Just for the record, here is today's vision of hope, captured at 10:30 am.

Yes, folks, once again rain deluges much of the country and there's some high intensity stuff sitting over France just awaiting air traffic control and customs clearance before picking up some extra moisture from the Channel and dumping the whole lot on us.

So don't go camping, keep those plastic macs close to hand and put the electric heaters on standby. You have been warned.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

China learns the hard way

I don't suppose the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have spent much time studying economic history. If they had, their responses to the huge instability of their stock markets, in turn sparking huge falls around the world this week, might have been less clumsy. They might even have taken some basic steps to prevent it.

J.K. Galbraith's The Great Crash has long been one of my favourite books. He wittily dissects the speculative fever that built up the great bull market of the late 1920s and the inevitable crash and depression that followed. None of the players in that market had learned from the economic crises of the late 19c. They permitted speculative buying of securities, in particular the pernicious practice of borrowing to buy, using the securities themselves as collateral. If stock market prices had risen in the past this was taken as proof that they would go on rising. So speculators borrowed more in order to make more guaranteed profits and as they eagerly lapped up new issues from promoters who themselves promised to invest the proceeds into other securities, so the rising prices of these meta-securities induced more buying and rising confidence on a steadily eroding foundation. Everybody in the market assumed that they could always liquidate their holdings at any time and realise their profits because there would always be others eager to buy.

Economists call this the Greater Fool theory and it has been proven many times. Investors staring at the plunging prices on the Shanghai market in recent days are just the latest victims of the fallacy that there will always be a buyer. It does not seem to occur to them, until it is too late, that if everyone in a market is buying in order to sell later on, and then they all try to sell at the same time (which must inevitably happen once the market peaks and all the automated stop-loss systems kick in) then there may be no buyers at all. Or not until prices have tumbled way below what anybody would consider good value. Clever investors buy at such times but they need good nerves.

Markets in the long run may well rise steadily. You can draw a straight line from the past to the future and see it pointing upward. But the long run is a very long time, much longer than the febrile memories of the young men shouting into phones in stock markets. In the short run huge movements may take place beyond the ability of any computer program to calculate (study Chaos theory if you need convincing). And it is in the short run that loans to finance share purchases need to be repaid.

The Chinese cut interest rates today, by a derisory 0.25%. If they knew anything about economic history, or Keynesian monetary theory, they would know this is likely to be futile. Who is going to want to borrow in order to invest in a falling market? They need to convince investors that the economy is stable and growing, that the banks have plenty of liquidity and that businesses are not about to go bust in a big way because consumer confidence is shot to pieces. It's a hard act to bring off.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Those awful advertising slogans - no 8. O2

I've refrained from mentioning this one before in the dim hope that it would curl up and die all by itself and thinking about it would just be a horrible memory. Alas no, they must have spent so much on the "creatives" who dreamed it up that they're stuck with it. And so, to your no-doubt despairing gaze and sharp intake of breath, I present the slogan that a leading telecoms firm thinks is going to make them sexy, desirable and worthy of our hard-earned cash.

Be more dog

There. I've written it (and used up some precious italics) and now my good friends at Google will preserve it for all time in these annals. An ungrammatical phrase that almost defies analysis. In plain English it should perhaps read 'Be more like a dog'. Or maybe it was penned by a man from Truro "Ar, that old Jethro on the farm, he be more dog than man, he be" and then it got mangled by the agency. If it is truly a statement of admonition then it should read "Be more doggy" or if not to sound too much like a parent engaging his bored two two old, "Be more doglike".

Of course I am taking the words at face value. Perhaps they have a particular mutt in mind, maybe the hero of one of my previous pieces, whose athletic prowess we must surely all desire to emulate. Or do they just want us to exhibit some of the more appealing features of the animals - the devoted look in their eyes as they espy Master opening a tin for their dinner, the endless fascination with retrieving a lazily chucked tennis ball in the park, or the ability to sort out the neighbourhood cats. And yet these seem somewhat unsatisfying activities to me. I do not seek to emulate dogs, or "dog" or whatever it is I am supposed to interpret as denoted by "dog". And even if I did, (and this is the cruncher), why on earth would I associate being more of it with buying a mobile phone? I have a mobile and my contract is not with O2. Am I going to ditch my provider so I can think "Gosh, now I am more dog. I was pretty dog before but now I am more of the same and it feels good. In fact it has changed my life and I  must start button-holing strangers to spread the word about how good it feels and I shall now buy another mobile so I can be even more dog than before, if that is possible. I shall wear an earnest smile, print pamphlets and spread the word of Dog on street corners and in tube stations (assuming they are not on strike). I shall speak about the iniquities of leads and the scarcity of lamp-posts. I shall demand more and bigger bones. Oh look, here come some men in white coats, why are they taking my arms? help, no, not the needle....zzzzz"

To summarise. I don't really know what this slogan means and that is enough to turn me off. And as I have often indicated, being told what to do by any commercial outfit is even more of a turn off. Tell me about your products, if you must. Don't tell me what to do or what to feel or what (God help us) sort of animal I am supposed to want to be like.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Shock, horror, scenes of terrible devastation, everyone panic etc.

This morning's headline must surely spell dark times ahead, if not the impending collapse of our economy and culture and perhaps heralds the wipeout of all life as we know it.

"Nightclubs closing at an alarming rate"

Let's take a moment to savour the implications. Are you scared out of your wits, buying sandbags and cancelling foreign holidays? Have you barricaded the doors, stocked up on tinned food and got your water purification tablets out from under that loose floorboard?

Well, maybe that's going a bit far. Does this story at least give you minor palpitations, a queasy feeling of unease, a sense that maybe it isn't worth having your hair done this weekend after all?

I see I've overestimated your reaction. Do you, in fact, give a toss about nightclubs and whether they close, no matter at what rate? I thought so. You and I, we share similar values. I couldn't care less about nightclubs. The idea of going to a dark crowded room to be deafened by someone else's choice of music (and I use that word with extreme distate because in my book music is something you listen to for pleasure not to torture your eardrums with monotonous computer-generated beats and the voices of "artistes" who cannot hold a note), and to pay stupid prices for drinks and to have to stand around holding them while people bump into you while spotlights dazzle you (and that assumes you've been able to get past a sneering bouncer in the first place to gain access to the wretched place) and then trying to get home at some unearthly hour in the morning with a splitting headache - need I say more? [No, point taken: Ed]

So why on earth should I feel alarmed if these places close? Pleased, almost smug, might sum up my emotions this morning. Let 'em all shut. The headline should read "Nightclubs closing at a very satisfying rate and the more the merrier says Minister of Culture".  And if this in some way signifies a reduction in the popularity of the "dance" music genre and a return to melody, musicianship and invention in the field of popular music then bring it on.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Legal insanity

If I buy a CD and listen to it at home that is legal. If my wife listens to it, that is legal. If I invite all our neighbours round that is legal. But should I make a copy for my wife to listen to on her mp3 player, then that is illegal.

If I use a piece of legally acquired commercial software on my PC then that is legal. If I backup the software because I wish to ensure that in event of a failure I can quickly restore the software that I have paid for, this is illegal. Should I back up data created by that software, if it uses a format copyrighted by the software owner, then this is illegal.

My source for these statements - the UK Intellectual Property Office   following a recent High Court judgement.

This unbelievable state of affairs arises from the continuance of 19th C legislation designed to protect authors of printed books and the inability of our legislators to understand the nature of digital goods. It is comparable to the law (repealed in 1896) requiring a man with a red flag to walk in front of a motor vehicle and deserves the profound contempt of all ordinary law-abiding citizens. No commercial interests whatsoever are harmed if my wife listens to something on her mp3 player that she can hear on the cd player at home. No commercial interests are harmed if I back up, for my own protection only, software or the data created by that software.

It is ludicrous that millions of ordinary people and thousands of businesses, charities, and almost certainly many departments of HMG are, theoretically, law-breakers. The High Court judges involved in this decision should be de-wigged and made to live for a few years like the rest of us in the real world.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

What is a restaurant?

I fell to musing about the characteristics of a food establishment that entitle it to be designated as a restaurant, as opposed to a cafe or snack bar, whilst I read my morning paper today. I learned that the world's largest burger chain is to begin a sit-down service at some of its outlets. American fast-food enterprises invariably label their retail units as restaurants. They share common characteristics in requiring customers to order and collect their food from a service counter, seat themselves and equip themselves with whatever eating tackle and condiments they wish.

In my book a restaurant is a place where you are greeted on arrival, shown to a table, given a menu, served whilst seated and waited upon until done. A cafe is a place where you order at a counter and are then served, or where the service is much more basic than a restaurant. (Menus permanently on the table is a good clue.) A snack bar is somewhere you order, wait and collect your food from a counter. (I am ignoring takeaways in all cases).  So a fast-food joint is not a restaurant. It is barely a cafe. It is a snack bar. It is cheap and quick and delivers exactly what is says on the tin (this is a popular saying, I'm not alleging that any particular well-known chain does serve straight from the tin, OK? [That needed inclusion: Ed]).

So it is interesting that the business in question is finally going to upgrade itself to a cafe status and I wonder when they will get around to opening a real restaurant.