Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Bliar - The Hype Spawned The Hatred

Gideon Rachman, writing in the FT, suggests that the loathing of Tony Blair is overdone. He says that "...Mr Blair made his fateful decision on Iraq for reasons that were both honourable and understandable... the decision to back the invasion was not an isolated act of Blair-inspired lunacy. It reflected the conventional wisdom of the British political establishment."

What Gideon overlooks is that Blair never sought a mandate to govern according to "the conventional wisdom of the British political establishment." He offered us change, personal empowerment, the Third Way, an end to 'boom and bust' etc, etc. Then he and his ministers proceeded to behave in a way that even his most ardent supporters found thoroughly disillusioning by comparison. Not just ignoring mass demonstrations on Iraq, but systematically ignoring the House of Commons, dedicating themslves to spin, tolerating the Mandelson affairs, perpetuating the dysfunctional relationship with Brown and so on. Gideon Rachman suggests that Blair's election victory in 2005 means "the idea that the British voters rounded on Mr Blair in disgust after Iraq is simply false." But this view conflicts with Blair's own admission during his resignation speech:
In his speech to supporters at lunchtime, Mr Blair dealt directly with Iraq, many people's perception as his ultimate legacy, saying: "The blowback since ... has been fierce, unrelenting and costly."
The disaster of Iraq had continued to snowball since 2005, coinciding in 2007 with the realisation that the economic cycle had turned (despite Blair's promise of an end to boom and bust), which is when Blair gave his hospital pass to Gordon Brown and set sail for untold wealth on the speaking circuit. By November 2007, the Bank of England was actively trying to manage the impact of the looming economic slowdown.

But such was the height and breadth of expectation that Blair had set for himself not even his resignation could spare him from the impact of all the bad military, economic and political news that was to follow.

The hype had already spawned the hatred.

Image from Gideon Rachman's cited article in the FT.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Animal Cruelty?

Apparently this web cam footage of a bank worker dropping a cat in a bin is not some kind of spoof - but it does defy belief.

CatBinLady attempts to provide some insight into what goes through the mind of someone capable of this.

The cat is apparently okay, but the RSPCA is considering whether to prosecute. It has plenty to consider.

In her public statement, the perpetrator claims "it was a split second of misjudgement". But the above footage shows her glance meaningfully at the bin at the 30 second mark, and she finally gets the cat in the bin 17 seconds later. Then she walks away, leaving the cat to be rescued by others 15 hours later, according to news reports. She clearly did not return to free the cat in the meantime. In my view, her misjudgement began when she first glanced at the bin, and continued at least until the cat was saved by others, and arguably until she was confronted with the evidence and apologised.

This story reminds me of the owner of a neighbouring farm when I was a kid. While he was drinking in a pub in town, a terrible smell was traced to his car, which was parked outside in the heat. Two sheep he'd 'rescued' on the road and forgotten about were discovered in the boot. I doubt he apologised.

Greed Investment Bank?

Great to see Private Eye focused on the proposals for a Green Investment Bank ("The Green Stuff", p. 9, No. 1269).

On top of the objections I've mentioned previously, the Eye has rightly added its concern that the GIB would absorb billions in public funds by absorbing a hotchpotch of other green funding initiatives and quangos, yet "should not be accountable to ministers or to parliament [and] would be unlikely to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act". Or anyone, probably.

But don't worry. When the GIB hits the wall because no one understands the risks it's taking on, we can all bail it out.

It's as if the credit crunch never happened.

Image from Zazzle.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Prior Consent For Advertising Cookies

The "Article 29 Data Protection Working Party", comprising representatives of EU member state data protection authorities, has published an Opinion that the ePrivacy Directive will require prior informed consent before setting a tracking cookie on a user's browser from May 2011.

As I explained in a June 2009 article for Practical Law on behavioural targeting of online advertising:
"Cookies may be either "session cookies", which are temporary and deleted as soon as you close your browser; or "persistent cookies", which are stored on your computer hard drive until they expire or you remove them. You can configure your browser to warn you whenever a new cookie is about to be stored; clear the cookies that have previously been set; and/or block specific cookies in advance. Of course, you can also choose not to visit a website or use a service whose cookies you do not want to receive."
And as I also explained, "guidance by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) allows presumed consent, with a clearly displayed privacy policy or other means of opt out to enable a user's refusal (Article 5(3), E-Privacy Directive, transposed by regulation 6, E-Privacy Regulations)."

But opt-out is not sufficient, the Working Party now says, and relying on users' control of browser default settings will not be considered "in most cases, as meaningful consent... Prior opt-in mechanisms are better suited to deliver (sic) informed consent."

Officials also say that consent should be of limited duration (e.g. a year), easily revoked, and consent tools should be visible where monitoring takes place. There is commentary on how web site publishers, advertisers and advertising network providers should comply. Advertising interest categories aimed at children are discouraged, and in any case prior informed parental consent is likely to be required.

Further consultation is taking place, with selected parties, though other contributions are welcome. Apparently.

In the meantime, you might look forward to a more crowded, interactive browsing experience with lots of guff about cookies, from mid-2011.

Image from Law Is Cool.

Pay As You Go Financial Services

Thanks to Dave Birch, of Consult Hyperion, for the link to this fascinating paper by Ignacio Mas and Dan Ratcliffe on the success of M-PESA, the African payments system whose mission is to lower the cost of access to financial services. There are great insights for serving both the 'unbanked' as well as bank and other financial service customers. And given how grumpy we tend to be with our banks, it's revealing that the UK’s Department for International Development was instrumental in funding M-PESA's initial development by Vodafone and others.

As previous research for the UK's Financial Inclusion Taskforce (archived here) demonstrated, the challenge of financial inclusion is not how to draw low income earners into the existing banking system, but how to make financial services more useful, convenient, cost effective and faster. And that seems best encapsulated in 'pay as you go' models, since you 'know where you are' in terms of cost and usage/availability which is in itself convenient. M-PESA makes an interesting case study because virtually all M-PESA's 9 million pay as you go users rate the service better than the alternatives on these factors. And that's not only the view of low income earners. The Mas & Ratcliffe report says M-PESA users are more likely to have a bank account than non-users, as well as being wealthier, more literate, and better educated.

Here are some more stats from the report, as at January 2010:
  • "16,900 retail stores at which M-PESA users can cash-in and cash-out, of which nearly half are located outside urban centers.
  • US $320 million per month in person-to-person (P2P) transfers.
  • still under two P2P transactions per month.
  • US $650 million per month in cash deposits and withdrawal transactions at M-PESA stores.
  • The average transaction size is around US $33, but Vodafone has stated that half the transactions are for a value of less than US $10.
  • US $7 million in monthly revenue (based on the six months to September 2009).
  • 27 companies use M-PESA for bulk distribution of payments. Safaricom itself used it to distribute dividends on Safaricom stock to 180,000 individual shareholders who opted to receive their dividends into their M-PESA accounts.
  • Since March 2009, there are 75 companies using M-PESA to collect bill payments from their customers. About 20% of the electric utility's one million customers pay through M-PESA.
  • two banks are using M-PESA as a mechanism for customers to either repay loans or withdraw funds from their banks accounts."
While M-PESA has been marketed very well, the report suggests the real key to its rapid, widespread adoption and frequent use is the decision to launch with a low cost mobile payment infrastructure, rather than a savings or credit product. This allowed the business to follow the usage-based pre-paid mobile airtime model, so that each transaction was profitable from day one, and no potential customer or transaction size was excluded as 'unprofitable'. It's free to register, pay money in, and there's no minimum balance. Now that so many people are on the system generating income, it's easier and more cost effective to respond to their demand for other suitable financial services and functionality.

Banks, on the other hand, "tend to distinguish between profitable and unprofitable customers based on the likely size of their account balances and their ability to absorb credit." I'd suggest that not only does this mean banks need to limit their customer base and rate of service adoption, but having made so many assumptions about the services to be provided and customers who might want them, it also becomes ingrained that banks must control the product rather than allow customers to shape the services they want. For example, MetroBank's launch strategy seems to assume you want the same type of banking services and delivery channels, but with merely longer branch opening hours, free coin-counting and immediate in-branch card delivery. Hardly the "revolution" it claims, compared to what's happening in Kenya, or even in the UK...

The success of M-PESA prompts comparisons with PayPoint, and how it's pragmatically solving parking payment problems using a mobile platform (see PayByPhone). And it's consistent with the adoption of pre-paid cards, amongst which the Oyster card and O2 payment card are interesting examples. Away from payments, and at the higher end of the market, the pay as you go approach is reflected in Zopa's person-to-person lending fee structure: borrowers pay a one-off upfront fee with no charge for early repayment, and Zopa lenders only pay a servicing fee based on the amount they have lent out at any one time.

There's definitely a future in pay-as-you-go financial services.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

London Water

I'm a great proponent of drinking London tap water, rather than the bottled stuff. So this is not a scare story about London's tap water not being drinkable, nor even that it tastes bad.

This post is about the difference between tap water and tap water that's been through a decent filter. Most top restaurants, for example, will soften and filter their tap water to help improve the taste of everything the water is used with, including tea and coffee.

I took this photo at my brother-in-law's birthday dinner. He's the marketing director of a leading water softener and filter supplier. Before our very eyes, he dropped an ordinary 'builder's tea' bag into each of the two glasses and whisked it out again within a minute. The water in the glass on the left is ordinary tap water. The water in the glass on the right is the same water that's been through his new household filter.

The tea in the lefthand glass tasted like the 'builder's tea' we all know and love. Almost like a pint of bitter, by comparison with the subtle flavour of the tea in the righthand glass. I can't magine what the difference would be with soups, sauces and so on.

We have a filter on our kitchen tap, but I'm told it won't have quite the effect seen above. The challenge is in demonstrating that, which seems to be as easy as making a few cups of tea. Is this the new 'Tupperware Party'?

Anyhow, the humble water filter seems worth considering before spending a lot on cooking gadgets, coffee-makers or fancy tea sets.
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