Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Golf: Problem's In The Mind

An alligator bit a golfer's arm off in South Carolina last year. Commenting on an earlier attack, in Florida, a spokesman for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said:
"12 to 18 physical encounters between humans and alligators typically take place during the summer months in Florida... People throw alligators chicken, hot dogs and other types of food...It conditions the animal to associate people with food, and that's when there is potential for something terrible to happen."
While they claim golf courses are dangerous, some reckon it's a conspiracy to make a buck out of re-selling balls that golfers are too frightened to look for. But family snaps like the one above show not everyone is cowed into submission. I once played in a corporate event at Industry Hills Golf Club, near LA, where the fairways are narrow and signs warn of rattlesnakes in the rough. Everyone else who hit out of bounds saw the signs, nervously took a drop and moved on. What a waste! I must've found twenty balls and didn't get bitten once, though I still flinch when my golf bag rattles.

Ah, but if only golf was a straight shoot-out between species, instead of our own synapses.

As Carl Hiaasen testified in Fairway to Hell, there are no words of advice, props or gimmicks that can prevent golf from driving you to distraction. The problem is internal. I reckon it can be summed up in the idea that Hope is the mother of Frustration and my own experience suggests Carl's problem may be that his home course, Quail Valley (slope rating 133 out of a possible 155) is too easy to dash all Hope.

Now take this "intoxicating" view of the 8th hole at my own club, Meland, near Bergen in Norway - rated 6th in the top 100 golf clubs of the world with a slope rating of 151.

According to Fairwaygolf, "The playing area is fairly generous but nearly every hole runs through a corridor of trees and creates problems in the mind." The "problem in the mind" at the 8th, however, is created by water in the foreground, water in the background, and the nagging certainty that there's an invisible lake in the middle ground - right where your eye would have you believe the fairway stretches unbroken to the green in the distance. Those are woods to the right and left, by the way. 

Confronted by such a vista, Hope departs, taking Frustration and all her other children with her.

But I'm no expert. Apart from a lack of timing, my handicap is 25, care of the generous staff at Stockley Park, near London. It took 20 years to summon the courage to present myself to golf club officials, and it wasn't just the knee-length socks that put me off.

I'd made various attempts to develop an acceptable swing in Australia, mostly by way of an 'escape' after slogging up and down the Parramatta River in a racing shell. It was hardly an ideal grounding, and I developed a hook so vicious that on the third hole at Warren golf course, in far western New South Wales, I hit a kangaroo with my tee shot, twice. I can see the poor animal as clearly in my mind's eye today as the moment I addressed the ball. It's resting quietly under a gum tree, about fifty yards away to the left, at a 45 degrees angle to the tee. My first drive strikes the kangaroo on the snout, whereupon it stands up, shakes its head angrily and stares hard at me. Hastily, I re-address the ball and, as so often happens in golf, I repeat the shot. This time the ball strikes the kangaroo squarely in the chest. It snorts angrily and rears up, taking guard like a boxer. We make our apologies and head for the next hole.

But my crowning moment Down Under was at the up-market Fairmont Resort in Leura ("Loo-ra") in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney. The course was busy, with 3 foursomes waiting on the tee. I was next up. The right side of the fairway opened out nicely, inviting the slice. Never mind, I thought, my problem's the hook. But a low fence ran down the left of the fairway, marking out of bounds. Beyond the fence, immediately behind me, was the hotel entrance. Forward of that was a car park, full of luxury cars. Nerves jangled. Adrenalin flowed. I swung hard, and brought the heel of my driver down on the ball like a lumberjack. Had the ball hit my shin, it would still be in my leg today. Instead, it cannoned into the front of the hotel, striking five feet above an open doorway. From there it ricocheted into the carpark, impacting in front of a Bentley, then took a giant hop, landing neatly in the middle of the fairway. There was an awful silence, until a lone voice from the gallery said, "That'll do it."

Naturally, when I moved to the northern hemisphere, my vicious hook reversed to become a fabulous 'push slice'. The ball starts out straight enough, but suddenly veers right, drifting further and further the longer it remains in the air - historically, with me berating it to stop instantly. The nadir of such impotent anger came when I was teeing off in Spain about five years ago. I push-sliced mightily from a high plateau waaaay out onto an adjacent fairway that sloped steeply back downhill to a green about a hundred yards behind us. Sensing the worst, I began cursing as the ball first veered to the right, the volume and intensity of the invective increasing to fever pitch by the zenith of the shot, punctuating with a burst of outrage as the ball landed, then spiking into apoplexy as the little cretin took off downhill. By the time the ball had rolled a good fifty yards past where I was still figuratively leaping up and down I'd exhausted the world's supply of expletives. Only at that moment did a wintry voice announce "Ladies present."

Putting all that behind me has not been easy. But, incredibly, my summer battles at Meland have been enormously helpful - chiefly because of the Hopelessness I've enjoyed on every round I've played there. The course is so hilariously difficult that even the best golfers may end the round exasperated. So I have absolutely no expectation of being able to avoid disaster. Having accepted that Meland will always be the winner, I'm (relatively) happy ;-)

Banks To Raise Prices By 33%?

JP Morgan concludes that banks must raise the prices of all their retail, commercial and investment services by 33% to cover the cost of regulation, if they are to meet current profit forecasts.

The readiness to advance this conclusion highlights the critical lack of competition across the banking sector. Ironically this is a product of the current regulatory framework. Currently, financial regulation funnels investment opportunities and funds into a zone where  relatively few firms are permitted to operate, enabling them to charge excessive fees. In other words, regulation designed to protect the consumer is actually underwriting "fat banking".

The cabal will only be broken up by opening the financial markets to everyone. The clear objective of the financial regulatory regime should be to deliver simple, low cost financial products that are accessible to us all.  Regulators should foster the growth of low cost 'facilitators' in the commercial and investment banking markets, to unleash the same trend that has enabled us to unbundle travel packages, music albums and personal loans to create our own personalised, lower cost alternatives.

The cartoon appears here.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Does Individual Empowerment Risk a Social Void?

Oikonomics makes the excellent observation that "We consume not to conform and be like (or liked) but to be different and thereby feel that in some small way we are in control of our lives...However," he warns us that "instead of pulling together we begin to pull in our own individual direction leaving a void in the social world that needs to be filled if we are going to meet the collective challenges of the sustainability of our way of life."

I agree that control over one's life is the motivation for consumption, but I believe this enhances, rather than undermines, our ability to meet the collective challenges of sustainability.

I agree that (except for fads/crazes like yo-yo's or cabbage patch dolls), we really only consume what is useful in solving/controlling a real problem, and the trend is towards more personalised solutions. The challenge for product providers is how to facilitate that desire in a highly flexible, adaptable, bottom-up way, rather than dictate how it can be satisfied in a top-down, one-size-fits-all fashion. Brands need to be facilitators, not institutions.

I agree that this trend represents a growing 'void', but only to the extent that one size no longer fits all. We no longer share the same TV schedule. We don't all have the same experience of any web-based service that dynamically serves its home page to each user. We've unbundled our travel and music. Our computers and smartphones are each differently configured with different 'apps' [who ever thought 'apps' would end up a retail marketing term?!]. Each social network service 'feed' is unique. We are ignoring traditional, formal politics and congregating around single interest campaigns and informal deliberative processes.

And I agree that this growing diffusion of consumer experience is undermining the sustainability of our [current] way of life. In fact the tools that are enabling this trend, unleashing our ability to escape the institutional view of the world, have been a catalyst for the bottom-up realisation that the way of life preached by our institutions has become unsustainable.

Yet, for all these reasons, I must disagree that the utter diffusion of consumer experience risks creating a social void that threatens our ability to meet the collective challenges of sustainability. If anything, the trend has put us in a far better position to face those challenges in a concerted fashion than ever before.

Discuss ;-)

Monday, 1 February 2010

Further Boost To Non-bank SME Finance

Last week, The Receivables Exchange secured $17 million in funding from Bain Capital Ventures.

I've been watching these guys since I learned of their launch in a response to my post about Zopa's trade finance efforts in November 2008. The coincidence was striking then, but even more so when they announced their integration with Ariba Network, the spend management services provider, in December '09.

The key feature about this form of trade finance is that credit risk can be tied firmly to the buyer, rather than the supplier listing the invoice for 'sale'. There are various ways to understand and mitigate that risk, depending on the size of the buyer and whether it's listed/rated. I'll spare you the detail. Interestingly, the UK Treasury has just launched a consultation on how the government might support non-bank business finance, focusing on corporate credit assessment and transparency.

Of course, the primary challenge is one of marketing this model to enough time-starved small business owners to build 'critical mass' (an expresson I have come to fear and loathe) - hence the $17 million.

Definitely a space to watch.
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