Monday, 20 April 2009

Of Pike Sniggling, Real Wine and Chilli

I was on a farm at the weekend, and narrowly missed going "pike sniggling". Not that I had the slightest clue what that involved. Having served my time in rural Australia, whenever confronted by such alarming expressions, I know very well to conceal my ignorance, lest one ends up the butt of a well-planned practical joke. With the poacher's visit in "Withnail and I" in mind, I merely bade my host the very best of luck. But, today I Googled the expression, and landed upon this helpful tome:

Amongst "Hunting, Dogs, Ferreting, Hawking, Trapping, Shooting, Fishing and Other Miscellaneous Activities" Mr Cameron (no relation, I'm sure) deals with "Wiring jack and pike Sniggling and spearing eels...". My search also revealed this enthralling exchange on I'm not entirely sure where this fits in the liberal firmament, but doubtless someone will help me out in the comments.

Meanwhile, with summer on the way at last I've finally got round to placing an order for a Prosecco from Serre I tried at a recent quiz night, now available through The Real Wine Company. There are three in the range, with the Valgres winning a Silver at last year's Wine Challenge in London. For a clue as to whether this stuff is worth drinking, Mark Hughes, founder of the Real Wine Co, explains his approach thus:
"I have spent my entire professional life in the Wine Trade as, amongst other things, Wine Controller for Safeway and UK Sales and Marketing Director for Hardy's Australian Wines. The Real Wine Company was the result of a Victor Meldrew-like rant against the impossibility of finding real wines which make you sit up and take notice. Over the years I have discovered gorgeous wines from around the world made by individual wine producers passionate about their wines. We created The Real Wine Company to showcase these wines and winemakers."
Good enough for me. As is the Wine Society, where I also buy a bit. Okay, okay, a lot.

And while I'm on authentic rural pursuits, I note that the Benington Chilli Festival is happening again in August. Now in its fourth year, it's proving something of a magnet for the chilli cognoscenti, with stalls featuring every incarnation of the fiery fruit - from seed to plant to lacing chutneys and other harmless looking concoctions, and cooked in all manner of dishes - all amidst the glorious setting of the Lordship Gardens. Great day trip. See you there.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Poor Gordon's Largesse Knows No Bounds

Oh, yes, it's aaaaall coming out now. All the great golden globs of public money lavished on the public sector over Gordon's twelve glorious years in charge of the nation's purse strings.

Well, after the binge, the hangover. It's Budget time. And this time we'll have to dig deep, folks.

Poor chap. It's all he knows.

Is This Entertainment?

"The entertainment industry scored a rare victory on Friday," says the FT, reporting the prison sentences and fines handed out in Sweden to the four promoters of Pirate Bay.


As has been shown in the UK, there is no economic justification for spending public money on special life-support for the so-called "entertainment" industry's antiquated set of business models, let alone on imposing criminal sanctions. And doing so in the case of file-sharing only encourages these laggards to persist in their efforts to slow the development of an open internet to their snail's pace.

When lobbied for more public resources to tighten the entertainment industry's failing grip on consumers' wallets, Ministers should demand instead that the industry delight people to the point where they don't need or want to use the likes of Pirate Bay.

Now that would be a victory for the entertainment industry - and entertaining to boot.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Something Decent To Read

I rarely have time to read for the pleasure of it. So when I do get the chance to settle down with a book, I like to know it's going to be worthwhile. The joy of the Internet is finding great things you once read and working out from there. Reviews are helpful, as is knowing how someone else stumbled across the book.

My own tale of discovery really begins in 1976, when my father introduced me to Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism, which marked the shift from dispassionate news reporting to stories where the journalist is somehow involved. I was also captivated by Wolf's own collection of magazine articles wonderfully entitled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. From there I meandered to Hunter S. Thompson (RIP) and The Great Shark Hunt and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Much of the New Journalism was spawned by the Vietnam War, and some of the best writing from that conflict can be found in Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and If I Die In a Combat Zone, as well as Michael Herr's Despatches. Norman Mailer seemed to find a similar voice in The Naked and The Dead, about the soldier's lot in the jungles of World War II (and recently Sgt Dan Mills captured it in the recent Gulf War in Sniper One).

Of course, Kurt Vonnegut took war reporting to a different plane in Slaughterhouse 5, about his experiences following the fire bombing of Dresden. His wondrous view of the world (partly via the planet Tralfamadore) can also be found in Breakfast of Champions. I've found some resonance of that in Nicholson Baker's brilliantly observed and highly entertaining The Mezzanine (the story of one man's lunch hour), Vox (a voyeuristic eavesdrop on a chat-line conversation) and his unashamedly voyeuristic tour de force, The Fermata.

Latin American magic realism has also tickled my fancy, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude to Louis De Bernieres' The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman.

I actually studied English literature and modern American novels for my Arts degree. That turned me into a fiend for Hemingway (A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, For Whom The Bell Tolls), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tender is The Night, The Beautiful and The Damned, The Great Gatsby) and, of course, Catcher in the Rye.

But it hasn't all been high literature. I love crime fiction, and Raymond Chandler was a maestro (Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep - a great film - and The Lady in The Lake), as was Dashiell Hammett (especially The Maltese Falcon - also a great film). Since the '50s Elmore Leonard has been king, I think partly because none of his characters is necessarily good or evil (try Pronto, Out of Sight, Freaky Deaky, Get Shorty, Be Cool and so on). Others include the darker, police perspective of Ed McBain (Kiss is great), the blackly comic Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season, Skin Tight, Double Whammy, Native Tongue, Strip Tease, Skinny Dip and so on), the laid back but brooding Tony Hillerman (A Thief of Time, Fallen Man) and the chilling Michael Connelly (The Black Echo, The Last Coyote, Angels Flight). The story of a crack dealer, Clockers (by Richard Price), sits somewhere between New Journalism and crime fiction.

I had a stab at turning an old manuscript into a screenplay while living in New York in the mid '90s, and Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter's Workbook were hugely helpful on plot and structure in particular. His dissection of Four Screenplays is a must, once you have the basic theory. Robert McKee is also very highly rated, of course (Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting). I also found Joe Campbell's The Hero's Journey a huge help in figuring out characters and their roles. I finished the screenplay, but it needed far more time and it was time for me to get back to London and earn some cash!). And a fantastic experiment in linking literature and film is to set aside a day to read Conrad's Heart of Darkness and T S Eliot's The Hollow Men, watch Apocalypse Now, then the film about the making of it (Hearts of Darkness) and, finally, read Eleanor Coppola's Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now. It's a fantastic journey accompanied every step of the way by the same sense of brooding malice.

While living in New York I became enamoured of JP Donleavy's The Gingerman, which I read after seeing a quote from the book in the bar of the same name. An interesting comparison is Jack Kerouac's On the Road, also written in 1955. It seems to have been the year for manic flows of consciousness. And I must say that chimes pretty well with my experience of living in NYC.

On the blogging front, I've found plenty of inspiration for my contrarian viewpoint in books like Liar's Poker (arguably, the story of where the ethos that powered the credit crunch began), The Black Swan (avoiding or exploiting situations and products that are predicated on their being no surprise events that will have a huge impact), The Long and the Short of It (you're on your own: pay less, diversify more and be contrarian), Blink (the power of the sub-conscious can mean decisions made quickly are as good as those we labour over - but see The Black Swan!), Freakonomics (basically, using data mining to re-appraise assumptions, like what determines a child's academic performance), Flat Earth News (confirmation - if you needed it - that newspapers can only make money if over half of the so-called journalism is a bunch of press releases - we need our news unbundled, like our music etc) and The Lexus and the Olive Tree (once globalisation hits your ville, there's no one you can call to stop it). More recently, I enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die, about the tyranny of positive thinking, and Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, a very readable account of the credit crunch from the standpoint of the JP Morgan staff who somewhat unwittingly unleashed the Bistro-style CDS into an environment of such stunning irrational greed, negligence, recklessness and downright fraud that it's left even the insiders angered and aghast.

And last, but by no means least, are Dean Johns' acerbic reflections on his days in advertising in "
Ad Nauseam", and his "punchy political essays" from Malaysiakini, collected in "Mad About Malaysia" and "Even Madder About Malaysia" - still as inspirational as the day he suggested I read Tom Wolfe.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Phorm Town Meeting

By the end of Phorm's "2nd Town Hall Meeting" it became obvious that the company is still trying to launch a product with both hands tied behind its back.

It's structure means that Phorm's online behavioural advertising service will only be successful if internet service providers implement it, then successfully market it to individual users, advertisers and web site owners. At that point, the company says, advertisers will experience less wastage in advertising spend, content owners will find it easier to monetise content, web site owners can charge more for space, and end-users will see more relevant ads as they browse.

Exactly what this means in commercial terms is naturally unclear. And Phorm rightly points out that it would be wrong for it to release the details of ISPs' trials or take-up incentives likely to be offered to ISPs' customers, at least until the ISPs are good.. and... ready..... to...... launch....... After 7 years of development, Phorm says it has learned to be patient - a revolution in the internet space.

It seems fairly pointless to have public meetings to talk about offering "choice" when you have no product in the market and the meat of your proposition is under wraps for commercial or regulatory reasons. Nevertheless, Phorm chose the opportunity to engage in further damage limitation on the privacy front and to set the commercial context for its service with a rundown on the online advertisting market.

All the legal points have been made on the privacy front, and don't bear repeating here - though I'll summarise them at the SCL's Information Governance conference. Phorm seems to think they've all gone away, or will be made to go away by launch. Network opt-out was mentioned. Network opt-in is preferred, as is a way to block the service altogether, so that I don't need to store either their opt-in or opt-out cookies. Having to choose whether to store Phorm's opt-in or opt-out cookies is only a choice about how you use Phorm's service, not a choice between using its service and not. Phorm says the current cookie practices are less transparent than its own service will be. From a user standpoint this doesn't deal with the point that I can choose not to go to certain sites, and to clear their cookies selectively, but I can't as readily avoid Phorm's service - or choose to use it on some sites and not others - if it's being run at the ISP level. That "choice" doesn't feel very personalised at all, and personalisation is at the heart of how the web is developing. Phorm asks why the likes of [Google and Facebook] don't have "town meetings" to explain their privacy policies and settings, but I can't think of a venue big enough - and of course they do constantly explain and respond to privacy queries from their massive, global communities in a very public way, online, where everyone can participate.

Phorm also appears to be creating some kind of moral panic by saying that it is part of the solution to preserving the humble newspaper - not to mention journalistic integrity. Shock, horror: journalists are apparently being asked to insert certain keywords in their stories to help attract the right traffic to their newspaper's online ads. Apparently, if Phorm were implemented and used by [everybody] content publishers would not [have to] do this. But the newspapers I read from time to time don't seem all that averse to coupling themes and stories with advertising in their offline manifestations, so it's hardly the end of the world as we know it. And I don't see how newspapers can escape people's desire to see their content unbundled any more than the record companies could. Their challenge is to keep innovating, as Eric Schmidt told US newspapers yesterday. Phorm suggests that the major ad service operators (Google, Facebook et al) aren't entitled to their current or growing flows of advertising revenues. The market will no doubt decide, but this suggestion ignores how those companies finance their own core businesses, which millions and millions of people clearly find very compelling - apparently more so than limited bundles of "news". It also ignores the importance of search and online communities for newspapers' content, not to mention ad deals.

Ulimately, comparisons with Google and Facebook highlight the fact that Phorm is not a bottom-up phenomenon. It's something that will only happen if big telecoms providers say so, and that collides with the Web 2.0 ethos. This, coupled with the Orwellian privacy issues - whether real or perceived - makes Phorm's marketing job very much harder.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Pay Less, Diversify More, Be Contrarian

Just finished John Kay's "The Long and the Short of It". Lots of decent, straightforward explanations as to why retail investors should "pay less, diversify more, and be contrarian," without pushing some kind of snake oil that allegedly delivers the same financial result.

In fact, he says, "You are on your own". That's not a great outcome after a decade of New Labour fiddling that was supposed to result in "treating customers fairly".

In essence, Mr Kay explains that financial markets have a mind of their own, unrelated to fundamental value. Financial models that purport to predict performance over time may be illuminating but they are not true... "frequent small gains [are] punctuated by occasional very large losses." He calls these occasional events "Taleb distributions," on the basis that Nassim Nicolas Taleb explained this problem fully in his book Fooled by Randomness (and again more recently in The Black Swan). Not only are faulty financial models accepted as being more than illuminating, but also the urge amongst financial services firms to compete on relative performance moves their markets "too far, too fast" for most of the participants to realise they should take the profits and check out. To call a halt puts one's job at risk. "It is better to be conventionally wrong, than to be unconventionally right." So, while it pays to understand the "mind of the market", your purpose in doing so as a retail investor is to do the opposite of what "the market" is suggesting.

Interestingly, Mr Kay's recommended regulatory response to the credit bubble is to "firewall the utility from the casino, by giving absolute priority to retail the event of the failure of a deposit-taking institution." He says:
"The additional rules which will be introduced as a consequence [of 'more effective' regulation] will be irrelevent to the next bubble, just as the Basle I and II capital requirements imposed on banks - the subject of so much regulatory and academic debate over the last two decades - were irrelevant to the credit bubble."
The more one is diversified, the less regulation should matter. Right? Well, that's easier said than achieved, given the marketing might devoted to cross-sell in retail financial services.

Maybe the financial regulators should simply dedicate themselves and their budgets to pushing the line:

"You are on your own. Pay less. Diversify More. Be Contrarian."

But there won't be very many international meetings or compliance jobs in that...

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