Saturday, 30 April 2011


I've often berated the European Commission's vain attempts to catalyse cross-border markets using Directives. The law follows commerce. And recent sociolinguistic research has shown that the way language evolves locally has not been altered by, say, the global distribution of Hollywood films, immigration or mass-market travel. So it was interesting to see Schumpeter put "the case against globaloney" based on World 3.0, the new book by Pankaj Ghemawat that demonstrates how thin the evidence is that globalisation has really taken hold - a must-read for Eurocrats.

Image from Translation-corner.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Of Canaries and Turkeys

What drink would be "Wild Canary"?
I'm on holiday, which means being asked to explain whether there are canaries in the Canary Islands, or turkeys in Turkey. I'm giving you the benefit of my research, should you have similar need of it.

"Canary", as in the Islands, is derived from the Latin for 'dog' (canus, cani) on account of dogs (or sea lions, which apparently look like dogs to sailors) once found on the islands; while the English word for the country "Turkey" is derived from medieval Latin "Turchia", though "Turk" is also at the core of many other languages' reference to that area.

There are wild canaries in the Canaries (though not that I've seen), but the bird was named after the islands, not the other way around. It's a similar story with the turkey, though it was misnamed when mistaken for guineafowl, who were once called 'turkey fowl', being from Turkey, but get away scot-free every Thanksgiving.

Scot-free comes from the Old English for "exempt from royal tax" [that's enough etymology. Ed].

Friday, 22 April 2011

ID Theft Insurance: Bonfire Of The Gullible

I guess it started out as a reasonable idea - provide card customers with comfort that someone else will help if your credit card is stolen and your card issuer let's you down.

But your card issuer isn't allowed to let you down, unless you do that yourself through fraud or negligence - in which case why would an insurer help? Slow as they are, it's very much in the legal and financial interests of card issuers to invest in anti-fraud protection. And they're usually 'first-on-the-scene' in a card fraud scenario, as you'll be aware if you've ever been called to confirm you weren't standing at a point of sale in both Brazil and Bulgaria in the past few hours.

If you're an ID theft policyholder and you don't agree, are you are among the 0.5% who've actually made a claim?

Cue the FSA probe into CPP, purveyor of fine ID theft protection at £80 a year. The investigation was prompted by Which? who have campaigned against this rort for some time. A glance at the fund managers who backed the IPO tells you all you need to know. Those people have no right to complain. Either they knew the drill or they were gullible enough to think this product had a real future.

As for the attitude of the card issuers: the FT cites at least one analyst's view that:
"You could argue that half the companies on the high street shouldn't exist because the things they sell are vulgar, tasteless or tacky... Which may be true, but it's irrelevant. The point is, there's demand there."
Demand or gullibility?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Gordo's International Mind F₪€k

Gordo Sets Record
Hot on the heels of February's findings that the IMF has been affected by a bad case of 'groupthink' and 'intellectual capture' we have the astounding 'revelation' that Gordo's lining up for a crack at the leadership role.

Now this particular chestnut has been churning through the rumour mills for sometime - here's some coverage from May 2010, for instance. And here's some from 2009. Presumably, that's Gordo's PR machine testing the waters of political opinion - typical New Labour mind-f₪€kery.

Which makes it all the more important that every time this idea rears its ugly head, we give it the hammering it deserves.

This week, the Prime Minister flatly promised that he'd block such a move, and offered some pointers toward more likely winners at the Pontefract races.

Seriously, folks, don't let Gordon anywhere near the international cash register. He'll blow the lot next time.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

It's All About Sociolinguistics, Innit?

Hat-tip to The Week for reprinting the fascinating article by Helen Rumbelow, on how English is being transformed by multi-cultural Britain, rather than American sportscasters.

Jonnie Robinson, curator of sociolinguistics at the British Library, explains that about 80% of English speakers have English as their second language. This provides plenty of opportunities for "word-sex" between English and other languages - mainly in London where over 200 languages are spoken. This intercourse produces new stress patterns (emphasis) on syllables, "question tags" that turn sentences into questions, as well as brand new words like "peng". Ironically, the reason that English spoken elsewhere in the world tends to jar with Londoners' sensibilities is because it's relatively antiquated, not somehow bastardised.

This would seem to present a grave challenge to any business hoping to "chat" authentically and consistently in the globally accessible social media world (which also has its own slang). In fact, global - even regional - consistency would seem a lost cause. And the roll-out of the various location features on the major social media platforms is a precursor to locally targeted "chat", and products. Innit?

Image from UMS English Department blog.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Of Banks And Leaky Buckets

I saw that Philip Stephens of the FT reckons the Independent Commission on Banking has let the banks off the hook.

I'm not so sure.

Once you accept the principle that retail banks must be 'ring-fenced' from their casino counterparts, it's a slippery slope. Firstly, it's questionable whether ring-fencing will work without formal legal separation. Secondly, ring-fencing won't mean much without a prohibition on the retail bank either directly or indirectly financing any of the casino operations - including providing security for casino activities. Surely the two businesses will have to behave truly independently. Mere firewalls will not prevent a repeat of the banking crisis.

But forget all this talk of fences and firewalls. Today's banking model is just a very leaky bucket.

Banks rely on you not having the first clue where your savings end up, or even caring how much interest is earned or who by (proof of that, if you needed it, is in any Barclays' TV ad with a Stephen Merchant voice-over). Your savings and the interest can leak into anything from a credit card balance to a synthetic CDO tracking shonky mortgages in Florida. Similarly, you sign up for loans and insurance, and your money runs out some more holes in the form of fees, charges and commissions or a giant fine to the FSA. For every hole that gets plugged - whether it be restricting early repayment charges or forcing better disclosure in consumer credit, stopping the Great PPI Robbery or requiring customers to be treated fairly - other holes appear in the form of additional current account charges and so on. Now they whinge about having to sell branches to create competition, and the costs of restructuring to prevent more holes being made by toxic investments.

At what point do we throw away the bucket?

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Do the NHS and the BBC Really Need My Help?

I was recently invited by 38 Degrees ("people. power. change.") to email my MP to save the NHS. Previously, I was told the BBC needed me to ride to its rescue.

Now, I've been a great supporter of harnessing people power via the Internet to facilitate social, political, commercial and retail improvements. Hence my subscription to updates from 38 Degrees (amongst others). I was attracted by the mission statement:
"38 Degrees brings you together with other people to take action on the issues that matter to you and bring about real change."
But I don't think you improve the effectiveness of our institutions - particularly the NHS and the BBC - by campaigning against the forces for their reform. Both institutions devote adequate resources to that already. I don't mind emailing my MP to support one of a number of rival reform proposals. But I won't trouble anyone in support of the status quo.

Image from kuduTalk.

Our Defences Against Disaster Weaken Over Time

Maintaining the Thames Barrier?
There's an interesting post at Zero Hedge speculating on the core theme behind the meltdowns in the debt markets, Gulf of Mexico and Fukushima:
"The bottom line is that if we continue to let the top 1% - who are never satisfied, but always want more, more, more - run the show without challenge from the other 99% of people in the world, we will have more Fukushimas, more Gulf oil spills and more financial meltdowns."
Yet danger lurks in positioning the lack of critical thought as the fault of the "top 1%", since that presumes the rest of us are even thinking at all, let alone critically or correctly.

It's not only 1% of us who fail on the critical thinking front. And not all people at the top of large organisations fail to think critically or act responsibly. There are plenty of yes-men and flunkies ready to act without question, while others genuinely and honestly believe it's their job to simply do what they're told.

However, given the devastating impact of recent disasters and the broad range of scenarios, the fact remains that our large-scale organised defences to key threats do seem to weaken steadily over time, regardless of the adequacy of the initial defensive position. We can also see that process at work in, say, the construction of the RMS Titanic, or the state of the New Orleans flood defences or the failed attempts to implement tsunami alert systems ahead of the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.

It's easy to blame cost-cutting itself, and management greed or short term shareholder expectations as its source. Or perhaps even a general human tendency towards complacency. It's easy because such 'causes' let 99% of us off the hook.

But surely that's the root cause of the problem. We all know that our society's defences to major threats weaken over time, but we lay the blame elsewhere instead of each bearing some responsibility to constantly question the readiness of those defences - whether as staff, parents, investors, taxpayers or voters. We are not powerless victims. The rise of the Internet, the empowerment of individuals and all the ensuing bottom-up changes those trends have wrought demonstrate that.

Image from Carbon Based.
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