Monthly Archives: January 2010

Misleading advertising and the feedback via social media

“up to” must be one of the most deliberately deceptive phrases in advertising. Up to 50% off, often means that one or two items are 50% off and most are either not reduced at all or are at a much lower discount. I got caught out by it once, exactkly once, at Homebase, where christmas decorations were ‘up to 50% off’, the up to being in letter 2cm tall and the 50% in letters 50cm tall. Does Homebase really think that is an ethical way of doing business, or are they just content to effectively steal money off customers who don’t check the price they’ve actually been charged until too late? I think the latter, but they lost at least one valuable customer in the process. Any self-congratulation by the marketers is misjudged, they will have lost a lot of money in the long term.

Up to 20Mb is used by BT to sell broadband packages that offer only a few people that rate, with most fobbed off with much lower ones, even 2Mb in my case. When challenged, BT responded that you pay for the package, not the rate, the package being of course ‘up to 20Mb/s’. To advertise a package in a manner that overstates its merits, knowing that people look at the headline ‘up to’ rate, is quite deliberate misleading of customers. Somehow it slithers through a tiny hole in the law that states that advertising must not be misleading by arguing that ‘up to’ is not the same as ‘is’. That’s the sort of morality that Clinton used in his defence in the Lewinsky scandal. BT can get away with it because there is no competition at the line provision level, all the alternatives have to use the same line, except wireless, which is not a real alternative. I worked in BT until a few years ago and know their fondness for confusion marketing. I hated it then, and I still hate it now. It belongs in the black market, and should have no place in an organisation that considers itself otherwise to be an ethical company. It only persists because of ongoing poor leadership quality in marketing that has plagued BT for decades. But they are not the only company to believe they can win by confusing customers.

In the absence of proper regulation, customers have to defend themselves. Most of us have a personal blacklist. Homebase and BT are on mine along with Stansted Airport, British Airways, British Gas and National Express. Other people have their own pet hates, and they use their competitors whenever they can.

Social media, such as twitter and facebook, provides the best weapons in this war. People can tweet their gripes and embarrass those who provide poor service. If enough do so, companies are forced to take notice and do something about it. It takes a lot of advertising spend to win people over and undo adverse publicity propagated on social media.

But social media used well can also be a superb marketing tool. If a company sorts out problems that people raise, they will reward them with good commentary. Recently, my xbox died, but I had very good service from Microsoft getting it repaired and I said so a number of times on Twitter. And I will also be very likely to buy a new one when they upgrade. By contrast, I complained about my broadband, and BT’s response was basically to dismiss my complaint, so I said so on twitter, and will look around more actively for alternatives. Social media spotlights and amplifies the behaviour of companies, whether good or bad. Bad marketing and bad customer care have always existed, but social media acts as an amplification circuit that speeds up the rise or fall of companies. And that has to be a good thing for all of us.

Bring back the Spectrum

In spite of massive rises in the power of computers, there is nothing on the market now with the same functionality as the legendary Sinclair Spectrum, which used to allow users to play games or write simple programs on it within seconds of switching it on. It must surely be possible to build a modern equivalent with better graphics and high speed for just a few pounds. The old audio-cassette storage could easily be replaced by a low cost memory card (none of the programs were more than 32kbytes). It would surely appeal to a whole generation of kids who have learned to play with computer games but have never tried to write a single program themselves.

Molecular transistor outlines a new kind of molecular transistor. The scientists from Yale and South Korea who made it are excited but think it is a long way from market because only about 35% of the ones they make actually work. I think they are mistaken in their pessimism. I don’t think that matters as much as they think.

Firstly, carbon is an excellent conductor of heat. If some of them don’t work, they will still help to conduct heat away. Carbon is cheap, so material cost isn’t a problem.

Secondly, since the devices are so small, and we know that carbon lends itself well to layering, then 3d electronic structures could be designed, and the many layers possible will quickly outweigh the disadvantages of poor reliability.

Thirdly, we are moving into a new ear of electronics. The drawing board has been smashed and innovative new practices are being considered. Importantly, old ones that didn’t work before will be resurrected to see if they will work now with the new situation. I expect to see a resurgence of evolving electronics, reconfigurable electronics, and analog processing techniques, used with self organisation algorithms. This could allow 3d materials that contain transistors to be connected together in experimental circuits, reconfigured rapidly until the circuit works. Reliability is unnecessary in such a system.

So I congratulate the scientists involved, but think that their invention will be much more useful, much earlier than they expect. Good luck to them.

Redesigning democracy for the 21st Century

So, another election set in the dark ages. Three parties to pick from, all of them unattractive. I am 49 and this is the first election where I don’t want to vote for any of the parties. I am very dissatisfied with the current state of democracy, especially in the UK, where we have all the means to make it better but choose not to because of vested interests.

Now that we have a good internet, we can and should redesign the democratic system to make it, well, more democratic.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the nappy. There are a few things right with the current system so let’s make sure we keep those.

The most important thing about the UK system is that it is a representational democracy. This is a good idea, whereas letting everyone vote directly on every issue isn’t. Remember all the stupid decisions that get made in student unions, where any idiotic proposal can be put forward and because only a few people will bother to vote on it, most of whom are its instigators, it gets passed. Our representatives also save us lots of effort by making most of the decisions for us, acting supposedly in our best interests (I’ll address this bit later).

Secondly, having a party-based system saves a lot of effort and confusion. In general, one party is likely to represent your allegiances on a wide range of issues much more closely than any of the others. It would be nice to have some say in the areas where you differ and which matter to you, and again, more later.

But already, we have a conflict. Today, you can vote for a party or for a specific candidate, but only some of the time will those goals coincide. You may hate the local candidate put forward by your favourite party. You may hate the party that your favourite candidate belongs to, but still want that individual to represent your local interests.

Another big problem is that party allegiances are spread very differently around the country. With a system that allows only one winner per constituency, we end up with a very distorted representation of the electorate. Parties with concentrations of loyal voters will get far more seats than those whose voters are spread more evenly. Although those who benefit from this will naturally support such a system, it could hardly be considered fair that some voters end up with far more representation than others.

So we could really do with a system that allows you to do blend both support for a particular candidate and support for a party. It would then be very nice if, even after the election, you could also make sure that your preferences on specific issues are also taken into account.

Simple. At an election, why not allow people to vote for the party of their choice and also for the local candidate of their choice. So you tick two boxes, not much extra effort. In parallel to the four-yearly vote, we could also have a database where voters can maintain a tick list on every policy preference. To save effort, their chosen party or candidate would fill in all the boxes according to their default, so people would only want to tweak a few decisions here and there. They could then modify this any time they like. At any point in time, politicians could consult the voter preference database to see what the electorate wants right now on every issue, and would be able to take this into account in their debates.

The advantage of the party and candidate voting system would come into its own in levelling the parliamentary playing field to eradicate the unfairness of unequal voter distribution. Voters would have a local representative who looks after their local interests. But when votes are taken on nationwide issues, each MP would have a vote scaled according to the national support of that party. So, if a party with a large national support ends up with too few seats, they would be given a bigger vote. Those with too many seats would get less than one vote each. With modern computing, it would not be difficult managing such a system. This system would be very beneficial to parties such as the liberal democrats, who always end up with far fewer seats than their proportion of the national vote would indicate fair.

In this way, each constituency gets the MP it wants, and each party gets the same representation in parliament that it got in the national vote. Such a system avoids the worst consequences of traditional proportional representation, which often results in the MPs being the least hated rather than the most loved, and also removes a great deal of the value of local representation.

This system could be dynamically applied in other ways too. Scottish MPs may be permitted a smaller (or zero) vote on English matters, and vice versa. Women MPs would get a higher vote on gender-related issues if they have too few MPs to be otherwise representative. The same could be applied to any racial, religious, geographic or demographic issues. The say that each MP gets would be proportional to the voter population that they represent in that domain. And of course, this could take full account of the voter preference database.

So, with a little application of basic IT in the democartic system, we could have much more dynamic say in the running of our country. It would be more representative of what we all actually want. Our local needs would be protected by our locally elected MP, and the say they have in each parliamentary vote on national issues would be scaled according to the national subscription to their party. And the voter preference database would act as a third voting component, ensuring that our MPs are seen to take account of our wishes on every issue.

All we need now is a bunch of MPs who care more about the principles of democracy than in protecting their own short term interests. Don’t hold your breath.

Boardroom pay policy – most CXOs are paid too much

We are all very familiar with people defending boardroom pay. The chief says they need the best people, therefore have to pay the best too. This line of argument is seriously flawed but is cited in every boardroom remuneration battle. It too often results in highly excessive reward for mediocre performance.

I meet a great many CXOs in my line of work, and with a few exceptions who really are worth their pay, I have noticed very little correlation between overall capability or quality of judgement and rank. So why should they be paid much better? I have given some thought to the issue and it seems actually quite straightforward. Only vested interests maintain the ubiquity and longevity of this flawed reasoning that top executives have to be paid very richly within a company. There are a few stars who ought to be rewarded, but most senior posts can be filled just as well at much lower cost.

In the vast majority of situations, and at every stage of promotion, a number of candidates apply for the job. With only a few exceptions, there is very little to choose between the top several candidates, and the job goes to the one who performed marginally better in the interview. What is then conveniently forgotten is that although the job has been filled, there are still several almost equally good people who could do it. If the winning candidate were to move on for higher pay elsewhere, one of the others could easily pick up the baton and do just as well. It is therefore nonsense that the pay for the job has to be a lot higher than the grade below. If it were just 5% bigger than the lower grade, it would still be filled by someone just as competent. People would still want the more senior job because it is more senior. Pay is actually one of the lesser incentives, power being a much greater one.

If each grade were paid 5% more than the grade below, wages would be much flatter. Typical blue chips have about 7 layers of management, and even this is open to question in terms of wisdom. That means that the top job only really needs to pay 40% more than the lowest grade. If an executive then performs far better than expected, they could be rewarded by bonuses, just like any other staff. If such a remuneration policy were implemented, it would save companies a great deal of money.

Of course, experience should be rewarded too and a wage scale within each grade is still useful to reward people who stay with a company as they become more useful. It would be reasonable to implement a bigger differential between the top and bottom of a scale than between scales. A higher grade might mean more responsibility or longer hours, but doesn’t necessarily need significantly more talent, and usually the job could be done by any number of people at the layer below. Therefore, promotion should be rewarded less lucratively than progress up each pay scale according to experience and tenure, which does correlate very highly with being more useful. Too often, someone who is excellent at their job is promoted to one where they are much less excellent, and the company suffers (as does the person). Rewarding skill and experience within the job is usually a better idea than promoting someone.

Clearly, some people do deserve to be paid much more than their colleagues. In many fields – design, leadership, research, engineering, teaching, law, medicine and so on, there are always a few high fliers who are so good at their job that they produce many times the value of their more ordinary colleagues. A top engineer might invent many of the key products on which the company depends, whereas many others perform at levels where they are easily replaced or outsourced. A top designer might make the product so appealing that it sells far better than it would otherwise. Companies should try hard to keep such people since they generate a disproportionate amount of income. But even here, pay is only one of a range of incentives that appeal to people, so companies should spend more effort looking at the individual’s goals and desires and target them more accurately. Bonuses and pay can be used of course if that is appropriate. In this case, there is no good reason why a top designer should not be paid more than the CEO.

So, the problem is not that some people should not be paid more, it is that it isn’t always necessary to pay more. Just beating a few other candidates at an interview does not in itself guarantee that a person is much more valuable than others who also applied. In most cases they aren’t.

So, how to identify those that should be paid more? Simple. Top people stick out. If they don’t stick out, they aren’t top people. Top people don’t get discovered at job interviews. If a product is hailed as having a wonderful design, find the people who were responsible and reward them. If a team performs well ahead of expectation, first reward them, and then ask them why they did so well. If they think that excellent leadership was a key factor, then reward the leader again too. Just don’t always jump to conclusions and always reward the people who happen to be in charge at the time something goes right. It may well have happened anyway, or even in spite of their involvement.

One of the big problems that many companies are now discovering is that top people no longer want to work for them. Often those people have found that thanks to the net, they can work freelance on a contract by contract basis for the highest bidder. Some of them can’t now be bought at any price as permanent employees, other will respond to higher offers. The result will be a small elite who are highly rewarded, and a large majority who are simply commodities and whose skills can be acquired at low cost either locally or from other countries.

So, what of the BBC and other companies paying high salaries for top people. Well, some of them deserve it. Having them on board can save a company or dramatically improve its performance. But the simple truth is that most of the so-called top people are not top at all, but only marginally better than the competition at a series of interviews. They deserve 40% more than the junior manager, and not a penny more. We need to spend a lot less on high blanket remuneration of all executives, and start spending a little effort on identifying the really top people and reward them instead. It doesn’t take that much more effort, because as I said, the top people really stick out, and if they don’t, they simply aren’t top people.

Climate science progress

It’s amazing what a few months can do. I’ve been watching the activity on the net since Climategate quite closely. Before that, I held the view that the earth was warming and that CO2 was probably a major contributor, but I was already sceptical that CO2 was the whole story because there were other plausible theories based on solar activity that affects cloud formation and they seemed to have a good foundation in historical evidence going back millennia. But like everyone else, I had no real idea how the climate worked. So, Climategate came for me in the middle of a learning period, where I decided that climate would figure much more in futures work, so needed to get a handle on it. I’ve now been studying climate science for about 9 months, so I still only qualify as a novice, and won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.

But Climategate was an eye-opener. I hadn’t realised just how flimsy the evidence for AGW (human-induced global warming) was until then, or how biased some of the climate scientists were, how they had done some bad science themselves, and then managed to block alternative theories, by withholding data, bullying journals into blocking publication, effectively seizing control of the IPCC and so on. I had assumed that the temperature data was sound, but it isn’t. I had assumed that the climate models took full account of solar activity, but they don’t. I assumed they looked at cloud formation mechanism in great detail, but they don’t. I assumed they looked at the data impartially instead of having a predetermined outcome and steering the models in that direction, but it turns out the models were designed to show warming and the inputs and equations selected and distorted to achieve that goal. Since many other researchers based their theories on that same data, their outputs were similarly corrupted. So it turns out that much of climate science has been corrupted and is badly in need of repair. Given that some of the data has been destroyed or altered, there is a lot of mess and damage to be cleared up.

But all is not lost. There is a lot of good science out there, and before climate science was politicised in the early 90s, some of the thinking and analysis was quite good quality. There have been several key studies recently that provide valuable insights, and several more well on the way. I have no doubt that science will recover slowly and we will end up with a good understanding how the Earth’s climate actually works, and will be able to figure out where it is going, and even some ideas how we might control it in some degree.

To give some idea how complex the field is, here are some of the things we know about the climate, and some that we know we don’t know.

There is historically a very strong correlation between cosmic radiation levels and climate. The galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) entering the solar system varies significantly, and the variations correlate well with temperature. The total amount of radiation we get from the sun varies only a small amount, and even the spectrum only varies by a little, but sunspot activity has a big effect on climate. It appears to do so via the enormous magnetic storms associated with sunspots, and the result is that cosmic rays are deflected and fewer enter the earth’s atmosphere. Thanks to some excellent work by Jasper Kirby and his colleagues at CERN, we know that cosmic rays entering the atmosphere produce a shower of other particles, and these can act as nucleation centres for water droplets to form from water vapour present in the atmosphere. These droplets can form clouds, and clouds can change reflect radiation back into space, and can also act as insulation. The exact mechanisms are not yet understood, but CERN is studying them now and expect to report in the next couple of years. As they do, we can start to include cloud formation related to sunspot activity and GCR variation into climate models.

Other studies by NASA on cloud formation will also help. Atmospheric behaviour is very complex, but the more we understand it, the better we can model it. In particular, NASA Goddard Space Research Centre has recently shown that aerosols in the atmosphere have a big effect on temperature. In particular, they discovered that black carbon from diesel exhausts has a huge effect on radiation absorption, and could account for much (50% or more) of the glacier melting that has been observed. Of course, it would be much easier to reduce black carbon than CO2. Other studies at the University of Waterloo suggest mechanism by which CFCs, released in the past by aerosol sprays and refrigerants, but now banned in many countries and phasing out in others, can interact with cosmic rays to break down ozone. Ozone absorbs solar radiation in the higher atmosphere, so reducing ozone results in more radiation being absorbed in the lower atmosphere, so increases warming. CFCs are a powerful greenhouse gas in their own right too. The reduction of CFCs in the atmosphere since 2000 correlates well with the levelling off of temperature, just as the rise over the previous decades correlates with the rise in temperature. As the ozone hole closes, temperature would tend to cool. Deforestation and change of land use is also very important. As trees are burnt, and as land turns to desert, or as fields are ploughed, dust enters the atmosphere. Small particles can stay there for days and affect cloud formation. And we may find that air travel contributes more to warming via contrails than by the CO2 emitted by the engines. Air traffic in most of the world flies too low to be so significant, but across the poles, the same altitude reaches a different region of the atmosphere where different reactions apply. The lower temperature at the poles results in a lower stratosphere, and some flights emit water vapour there. In a nutshell, it hangs around longer and causes more warming via cloud formation interactions with the lower atmosphere. This may be one of the major factors why the north pole is melting far faster than expected, while the south isn’t, having much less air traffic of course. But we need the science to be done, then we can model it properly.

So, with black carbon, dust, CFCs, ozone depletion, galactic cosmic ray flux variation, and a variable shield from solar magnetic activity, it already looks like CO2 is just one of a series of contributors to global warming. The CFCs may well turn out to be the bigger human influence. But as yet, these factors cannot all be properly compared, because we don’t understand the science behind the various interactions well enough. But we will be much better placed to do so in the next couple of years.

Scientists also know that oceans are responsible for much of the climatic variation. Oceans act as a huge thermal store as well as acting as a store of various gases. Movement of water between the depths and surface layers is a very slow process, so acts as both a long term damper and delay. Surface currents that transport heat around the world are also highly significant. And yet our understanding of the many factors is still in its infancy. El nino and la nina are still fairly new terms to most of us, and they still cannot be predicted well. Huge server farms are required just to model behaviour of small areas of ocean, so computer power is still one of the major bottlenecks. Getting good input data is another. It will be several years at least before we can accurately model ocean currents and properly predict their contributions to climate.

One of the most worrying factors is that the historical record indicated that we are in a period similar to the midieval warm period as far as solar activity and galactic radiation are concerned. The MWP was followed by a mini ice age, and there is informed speculation that we may well now be heading into another. It is overdue, and the patterns of warming and levelling off are just right. But the other factors of CFCs, CO2, desert dust, air travel and so on make it a very complex situation indeed.

The danger we are in as a result is that the climate could arguable go either way now. If it turns out that CO2 really is as bad as is made out, then temperature will increase and we are in danger of crossing some critical points where methane clathrates start to vapourise, giving runaway greenhouse warming. If on the other hand, and which is looking more likely by the day, CO2 is only a small player and the bigger effects are either natural or related to CFCs and black carbon, then we will see a few more years of turbulent weather followed by decades of cooling. Technology progress will reduce fossil fuel use anyway, so there will be less CO2 in the atmosphere to offset cooling. If we try to reduce CO2 in such a case, and also clear up other pollutants such as CFCs and black carbon, then we will suffer even more.

So we are like a guy standing on the edge of a cliff, wearing a blindfold. Lots of people are screaming at us, telling us to do something because we are in grave danger. But if we move before we can see the direction of the drop, we are as likely to die as to survive. By far the best course of action is to remove the blindfold before we do anything else.

So, we should spend much less money on wind farms, and put a lot more into research, making sure it goes to people who are more interested in doing good science than in proselytising a particular viewpoint.