Monthly Archives: November 2013

Fake sales: death by marketing

The papers are full of stories alerting customers that massive discounts in the sales are meaningless because the original prices were highly inflated and only a few items were sold at that price to a few people who got badly ripped off. Even after a 70% discount, the sale price can often still mean an actual 45% mark-up for the retailer (to save you the mental arithmetic, that means some shoppers have actually paid almost 5 times the original price paid by the shop).

A few thoughts:

1) Why is this practice still happening? It is supposed to have been banned. Are the authorities all on holiday?

2) The banks have had several fines now and had to repay billions due to bad selling campaigns, such as in credit card insurance or mortgage protection. How long can it be before a class action against the big retailers using fake discount practices is launched on behalf of the sacrificial customers who paid far too much for something so that many others could get a fair price later under the marketing pretense of a deep discount?

3) How long after that will it be before some of the claimed discounts are enforced on a sensible original price as a punishment?

4) How long will it be before one of the big retailers seizes the obviously vacant moral high ground of playing fair and uses the advantage to blast competitors and seize huge market share. With a struggling economy, the advantage of being first mover could be huge.

5) How long will customers who have been ripped off in this way remember the companies who did it and tend to buy from their competitors instead? Has nobody in their marketing departments ever heard the expression ‘once bitten, twice shy’?

6) Has anyone in these companies done any proper agent-based modelling to study the effect of people delaying or even abandoning purchases because they don’t want to be the sacrificial customer? Many people are struggling financially, and will have huge problems buying their loved ones Christmas gifts. If they have also to worry about the exact timing of purchase to make sure they don’t get ripped off, they will struggle even more. In a recession that cause so many people so much misery already, this practice borders on inhuman.

7) Has nobody taken account of the system-wide effects of concentrating  too large a proportion of shopping into a short period such as Black Friday? It cannot possibly be optimal from a logistics point of view. It must also cause severe stress for any employees that have to work extremely hard for short periods and then be unemployed on zero hours for the other days. Again, the system-wide effects can’t be overall beneficial.

9 Why try to rip customers off as much as you can get away with? Why not instead treat customers with respect and offer relatively constant prices with a fair markup and watch your profits go up?

10) Many companies have died because of accountants thinking they were being cleverer than reality shows when their company eventually dies. Will the biggest cause of corporate demise be death by accountant or death by marketer?

Electronic Democracy design should not be left to corporates

The Speaker of the House of Commons is reported as wanting the web giants to plan a digital revolution of the UK electoral system – er, that we can vote electronically. The Daily Mail says  it is the brainchild of the Speaker. No it isn’t, don’t be silly. Electronic voting has been around yonks, it is far from being a new idea. Only in the House of Commons could this sort of idea be new to anyone. Three of us in BT won a prize in 1993 for talking about the impacts on democracy of electronic voting and use of the web and so on. So the Speaker is only 20 years behind the times, and MPs and Ministers have been told to do something along these lines numerous times since by many people.

But this blog isn’t about how our MPS are ludicrously badly educated about the basic platforms of modern existence. It isn’t even about the huge errors they make every day. The gigabytes of storage WordPress very nicely lets me have access to still isn’t enough to document all the stupidity in parliament.

It’s about how big companies with a terrible track record of abusing their positions or with any sign of intent on world domination should never be allowed anywhere near its design or implementation. I don’t need to mention any names, but I will exclude Twitter from criticism, they’re still young and not very naughty yet.

Actually, that’s all I need to say. I suspect every reader of my blog understands that statement extremely well with no further clarification required except any MPs who might have stumbled across it. It should be as blindingly obvious as not letting Dracula run a blood bank or Goldman Sachs run a privatisation.

Superhero Sci-fi Free today, 27 Nov: Space Anchor

My Space Anchor ebook is free TODAY ONLY as an early xmas present to all my readers.  for UK readers

It is a not-too-serious book, set towards the end of this century, and is first one I have written on the adventures of Carbon Girl and her partner Carbon Man, who manage to make an entire superhero lifestyle using carbon and not much else. Although it is meant to be a bit light-hearted, most of the tech in it is supposed to be reasonably plausible. I have had to make a couple of concession to artistic license for the space bits – a sad fact of life in sci-fi is that if you want ships to go any distance in a short period, you have to invent some pseudo-scientific way of side-stepping what we currently think of as basic physics. It has AI romance and zombies in it too.

With recent complaints in the media that most sci-fi has a severe shortage of female characters, my book tries to improve the balance a bit, and uses Carbon Girl as its main character.

kindle cover

Scottish Independence. Please don’t go.

So, the great date is set: 24th of March, 2016. That’s when Scotland might become an independent country.

I like Scotland. I always enjoy being there. I was born in Cumbria, the county next door, and I have many happy childhood holidays of Dumfries and Galloway, and enjoyed many holidays and business trips there since. We even stayed in the Loch Rannoch Hotel for our honeymoon, a poor example of Scottish hospitality but in a pretty enough location to compensate. A lot of Scotland is physically pretty if you keep away from the midges and the rain and can therefore raise your gaze above the ground. The wild blueberries and raspberries are delicious. Some of the people are very nice. I love watching films like Braveheart or Rob Roy (though I recognise they probably have scant overlap with actual reality). The Scots have a wonderful reputation. Sure, they cost a bit. Us poor English have to subsidise the Scots a lot, but so what; they’re worth it.

That’s the collection of impressions that spring immediately into my consciousness when the debates on Scottish Independence are mentioned. I suspect it is a fairly typical mix for an Englishman. My wallet wants them to get lost, my heart wants them to stay.

The romantic part of me that likes the Braveheart image wants them to vote for independence. Many Scots would love to tell us English where to go and I can’t help feel some empathy with that. If I were a Scot, I would probably vote for independence. But if I did so, I’d be casting that vote knowing that tomorrow would be a bleak day. A proud day, but a bleak day.

An independent Scotland will struggle financially. There is no doubt at all of that. The vast majority of Scots receive from the state overall rather than contributing to it. Without subsidy from the English, the people and companies who pay the country’s bills will have to fork out even more, and many will be tempted to emigrate south, resulting in a harsh spiral. My daughter has to pay £9000 per year for her university education, but I am helping to pay for some Scot to go to uni for free. I pay £100 per year for prescriptions, but my taxes help mean that Scots get them for free. The full costs of these sorts of benefits are easy to ignore when someone else pays, but when the bill has your own name on it, reality strikes painfully. Benefits subsidised by English taxes will vanish or taxes there will rise. Since they are already suggesting cutting taxes, it is very hard to see how their sums add up. Something’s gotta give. Unless some magical source of new income appears. Ah yes…

Scotland has quite a few wind turbines, and those in favour of independence point to them as if they can finance the whole economy.  In a previous blog I calculated that even if every hectare of Scotland was covered in wind farms, it would barely equate to all the coal fired power stations in England. Not all of Scotland is suited to turbines, the costs are extremely high, the environmental damage they cause is huge, and there is no reason whatsoever why a foreign country would buy energy at six times the cost of using their own shale gas.

North Sea oil won’t pay for long either, even if they are allowed to keep it. The demand for oil will shrink into the foreseeable future as shale gas and coal picks up.

Tourism is a good income source and in some places there, the people are friendly and hospitable. So there is scope for tourism growth, but no real reason to expect it will be any more than today. Scotch is a rapidly growing sector, and I could probably drink a lot more than I currently do, but a few extra bottles of Glenlivet a year won’t make Scotland rich. I can’t drink enough to contribute as much profit as I currently pay in Scottish tax subsidy.

The Scots could start a tax price war with the remaining UK to encourage business to flock there. That might work a bit, but actually, a lot of people don’t want to work in Scotland because the weather is terrible. So even if tax is a bit lower, I simply can’t imagine a sudden enormous queue of economic migrants heading north.

So I am heavily sceptical about the economic wisdom of separation. I may be missing some big factors, but I doubt it. An independent Scotland will be poorer that one that stays part of the UK.

But I want Scotland to stay. I feel proud to be part of the same country as the Scots. Scottish engineers and scientists have made enormous contributions to our quality of life. They still do. Scotland is culturally rich and vibrant too, and they probably contribute more than their share to British sporting prowess. I like most Scottish accents. I’d be far more likely to celebrate Burns Night than any English festival.

Scottish independence would be a bad thing for the Scots. Being independent might make them proud, but only in a huddled-in-the-corner-pretending-it-isn’t all-that-cold sort of way. They’d simply be poorer. We’d all miss them if they went, and I for one would rather they stayed warm and well-subsidised and happy and part of the UK.

They would still slag us off and we would still moan about having to pay their bills, but I’d rather stay together.

We should help the poor, but not via global warming compensation

At the Warsaw climate summit, some developing countries argued that the rich, developed world, should compensate poor countries for the effects of global warming such as the recent typhoon. That is a very bad path to tread indeed.

Like almost everyone reading this, I am all for helping poor people to the very best of our ability, wherever they live. But we should do so because we can help them and because we want to help them, for the best of human reasons, not because we’re being forced to via some perverse compensation scheme.

As I argued in my book Total Sustainability, if we want to live in a sustainable world, we need to fix not just those things that directly affect the environment such as pollution and resource use, but also things that indirectly affect the environment via human impacts. We need to look at economics, politics, society, business and cultural effects too, and deal with the problems therein that would eventually adversely affect the environment and human well-being such as exploitation and corruption.

Let’s ignore for the time being the fact that global warming has levelled off for 16 or 17 years now even while CO2 levels have skyrocketed. Let’s ignore the fact that environmental catastrophes have always happened, and that it isn’t possible to attribute any particular weather-related disaster to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. There is no shred of evidence linking the recent typhoon to CO2 levels. Let’s ignore the fact that the number and severity of storms has declined, so the level of problem has actually gone down as CO2 level has increased. Let’s ignore those facts because the overwhelmingly important overall fact is that we don’t yet understand what is happening to our climate, nor how much of any changes we observe are natural and how much are due to human activity, still less the attribution to particular human activities. The only evidence I need cite for that assertion is that almost all of the climate models have grossly overstated the amount of warming we should have seen by now. If they are genuinely the result of the best understanding of climate we have and not scientific corruption or deliberate misrepresentation and tweaking to get the right answer, then we can be certain that some of the equations or factors in them are wrong, or still worse, missing. 

If we don’t even understand how climate works, if we don’t understand the effects of human activity on the climate, then it is utterly ridiculous to attribute particular environmental catastrophes to the behaviour of particular countries. A sensible demand for compensation would need to demonstrate a causal link between an act and a result. We are nowhere near the level of scientific understanding required for that. Even if we were, or if we eventually get to that point; even if future scientists could conclusively show that rich countries’ CO2 emissions caused a particular storm, we still would have no justification for compensation to developing countries. Let’s help them as much as we can, but let’s not use human-caused global warming or climate change as the reason.

Why not? Here’s why:

One of the chapters in my book was called  ‘the rich world owes no compensation to the poor world’. The world only has the technological capability to support a population over seven billion because of the activities of our ancestors. Without the industrial revolution, the energy it used, the pollution it generated, the CO2 it led to, very many of those alive today would not be. We owe no apology for that. It is only through that historic activity that we are where we are, with the technology that allows poor countries to develop. Developing countries are developing in a world that already has high CO2 levels and is still largely economically and technologically locked into CO2-intensive energy production. That is simply the price humanity overall has paid to get where we are. When a developing country builds a new power station or a road or a telecomms network, it uses today’s technology, not 16th century technology – the century where modern science and technology arguably really started. Without the rich world having used all that energy with its associated environmental impact, they’d have to use 16th century technology. There would be no rich world to sell to, and no means to develop. Developing is a far faster and easier process today than it was when we did it.

Our ancestors in the rich world had to suffer the pain hundreds of years ago – they were the giants on whose shoulders we now stand. It was mostly our ancestors in the rich world whose ingenuity and effort, whose blood, sweat and tears paid for a world that can support seven billion people. It was mostly they who invented and developed the electricity, telecoms, the web, pharmaceuticals and biotech, genetically superior crops, advanced manufacturing and farming technology that make it possible. That all cost environmental impacts as part of the price. The whole of humanity has benefitted from that investment, not just rich countries, and if any compensation or apology were due to the rest of the world for it, then it has already been paid many times over in lives saved and lives enabled, economic aid already enabled by that wealth, and the vastly better financial and economic well-being for the future developing world that resulted from that investment. The developing world is developing later, but that is not the fault of our ancestors for making our investment earlier.

Amount of compensation owed: zero. Amount we should give for other reasons: as much as we can reasonably afford. Let’s give through compassion and generosity and feeling of common humanity, because we can and because we want to, not because we are being forced.

Why can’t we make an open source substitute for Facebook/Google etc?

Google is taking flak because of forcing people to join Google+ just so they can comment on a YouTube video, presumably so they can gather more personal data for their ad targetting. Facebook seems to take flak every week for yet another privacy abuse of its users. Twitter hasn’t been in trouble for ages.

It seems to me that when we can make open source office applications and open source operating systems, that an open source general purpose social networking platform should be perfectly feasible. On it, people would be able to keep in touch, share videos, messages, emails, pictures and text, hang out and chat using text or audio-video, comment generally to the world about anything, and could do so freely without having to give up their anonymity, or have to be bombarded with ads.

There can’t be a fundamental patent problem stopping it, because there are lots of sites that let people share videos and text and other kinds of files. There are so many ways to do it that any particular patent can be circumvented.

If our personal data is so useful, the platform could even provide a way of people collecting it for themselves and then selling it for a discount to any company they want to sell it to, but the initial value would be theirs, not some big company.

I did a quick search, search being something else that could become open source, running on distributed peer to peer networks, our own PCs essentially. Some open source social networking components already exist out there. All we should need is a few bits of sticky tape and glue to put them all together now, surely?

Isn’t it time to tell these big companies where to go and reclaim the net for ourselves?

I want my TV to be a TV, not a security and privacy threat

Our TV just died. It was great, may it rest in peace in TV heaven. It was a good TV and it lasted longer than I hoped, but I finally got an excuse to buy a new one. Sadly, it was very difficult finding one and I had to compromise. Every TV I found appears to be a government spy, a major home security threat or a chaperone device making sure I only watch wholesome programming. My old one wasn’t and I’d much rather have a new TV that still isn’t, but I had no choice in the matter. All of today’s big TV’s are ruined by the addition of features and equipment that I would much rather not have.

Firstly, I didn’t want any built in cameras or microphones: I do not want some hacker watching or listening to my wife and I on our sofa and I do not trust any company in the world on security, so if a TV has a microphone or camera, I assume that it can be hacked. Any TV that has any features offering voice recognition or gesture recognition or video comms is a security risk. All the good TVs have voice control, even though that needs a nice clear newsreader style voice, and won’t work for me, so I will get no benefit from it but I had no choice about having the microphone and will have to suffer the downside. I am hoping the mic can only be used for voice control and not for networking apps, and therefore might not be network accessible.

I drew the line at having a camera in my living room so had to avoid buying the more expensive smart TVs . If there weren’t cameras in all the top TVs, I would happily have spent 70% more. 

I also don’t want any TV that makes a record of what I watch on it for later investigation and data mining by Big Brother, the NSA, GCHQ, Suffolk County Council or ad agencies. I don’t want it even remembering anything of what is watched on it for viewing history or recommendation services.

That requirement eliminated my entire shortlist. Every decent quality large TV has been wrecked by the addition of  ‘features’ that I don’t only not want, but would much rather not have. That is not progress, it is going backwards. Samsung have made loads of really good TVs and then ruined them all. I blogged a long time ago that upgrades are wrecking our future. TV is now a major casualty.

I am rather annoyed at Samsung now – that’s who I eventually bought from. I like the TV bits, but I certainly do not and never will want a TV that ‘learns my viewing habits and offers recommendations based on what I like to watch’.

Firstly, it will be so extremely ill-informed as to make any such feature utterly useless. I am a channel hopper so 99% of things that get switched to momentarily are things or genres I never want to see again. Quite often, the only reason I stopped on that channel was to watch the new Meerkat ad.

Secondly, our TV is often on with nobody in the room. Just because a programme was on screen does not mean I or indeed anyone actually looked at it, still less that anyone enjoyed it.

Thirdly, why would any man under 95 want their TV to make notes of what they watch when they are alone, and then make that viewing history available to everyone or use it as any part of an algorithm to do so?

Fourthly, I really wanted a smart TV but couldn’t because of the implied security risks. I have to assume that if the designers think they should record and analyse my broadcast TV viewing, then the same monitoring and analysis would be extended to web browsing and any online viewing. But a smart TV isn’t only going to be accessed by others in the same building. It will be networked. Worse still, it will be networked to the web via a wireless LAN that doesn’t have a Google street view van detector built in, so it’s a fair bet that any data it stores may be snaffled without warning or authorisation some time.

Since the TV industry apparently takes the view that nasty hacker types won’t ever bother with smart TVs, they will leave easily accessible and probably very badly secured data and access logs all over the place. So I have to assume that all the data and metadata gathered by my smart TV with its unwanted and totally useless viewing recommendations will effectively be shared with everyone on the web, every advertising executive, every government snoop and local busybody, as well as all my visitors and other household members.

But it still gets worse. Smart TV’s don’t stop there. They want to help you to share stuff too. They want ‘to make it easy to share your photos and your other media from your PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone’. Stuff that! So, if I was mad enough to buy one, any hacker worthy of the name could probably use my smart TV to access all my files on any of my gadgets. I saw no mention in the TV descriptions of regular operating system updates or virus protection or firewall software for the TVs.

So, in order to get extremely badly informed viewing recommendations that have no basis in reality, I’d have to trade all our privacy and household IT security and open the doors to unlimited and badly targeted advertising, knowing that all my viewing and web access may be recorded for ever on government databases. Why the hell would anyone think that make a TV more attractive?  When I buy a TV, I want to switch it on, hit an auto-tune button and then use it to watch TV. I don’t really want to spend hours going through a manual to do some elaborate set-up where I disable a whole string of  privacy and security risks one by one.

In the end, I abandoned my smart TV requirement, because it came with too many implied security risks. The TV I bought has a microphone to allow a visitor with a clearer voice to use voice control, which I will disable if I can, and features artificial-stupidity-based viewing recommendations which I don’t want either. These cost extra for Samsung to develop and put in my new TV. I would happily have paid extra to have them removed.

Afternote: I am an idiot, 1st class. I thought I wasn’t buying a smart TV but it is. My curioisty got the better of me and I activated the network stuff for a while to check it out, and on my awful broadband, mostly it doesn’t work, so with no significant benefits, I just won’t give it network access, it isn’t worth the risk. I can’t disable the microphone or the viewing history, but I can at least clear it if I want.

I love change and I love progress, but it’s the other direction. You’re going the wrong way!

Is is time to packetise electricity?

It is a couple of decades now since electricity cables were first demonstrated as potential telecomms networks, and some applications of that are commercially available now. You can even use special adapters that plug into a mains socket to communicate with devices in other sockets, though wireless LANs make that much less significant now.

However, an obvious derivative of that has also been known for decades but is still missing. That idea is to packetise the electricity itself. The electric current would still be constant, but each bit would have a communications packet written on it. That would allow electricity to be sold peer to peer, to be assigned to specific purposes, and rationed in time of shortage. It is closely related to smart metering, just a different way of doing something similar.

Here’s an example of how this may be used in practice: A power supplier could issue packets of electricity labelled according to their permitted use. Most of the time, all packets would be labelled open use and could be used for any purpose. When load is high and supply is limited, some packets would be marked restricted use. They could be used for lighting or a hair dryer, but not to power a freezer or electric heater, or battery chargers. Enough open packets would be issued to provide minimal power to these secondary uses, so that your ice cream doesn’t melt and your gran doesn’t freeze to death, but they would provide an excellent way of smart targeting for power rationing. In fact, grans might be allowed to use power for heating when some other homes aren’t, if they are known to have alternative supply for example.

What is meant by ‘each bit’ needs some thought though. To offer useful service potential, energy needs to be broken into quite small pieces. An electrical unit is far too large. I think a Joule is about right – 1 Watt for 1 second but I haven’t really though about it much. Millijoules would be feasible technically, but I don’t think they add much in terms of potential.

Energy from different suppliers could be labelled differently, but share the same wires, just like telecomms traffic. You could choose to run your house on just renewable energy, or just nuclear, or be bloody minded and insist that it has to come from a coal station just to annoy your green neighbour.

There has to be an incentive to use compliant appliances, and they would cost a little more for the embedded intelligence to understand the packets. The main incentive would be price reduction for the energy used, or perhaps event-specific rewards for allowing a local ban during peak times. They could even be offered in advance.

Peer to peer sale of electricity from a small wind turbine or from solar panels on a roof would work too. Instead of selling electricity back onto the grid at a poor price and some neighbour buying it back from the grid at a high price, peer to peer allows direct sales at mutual advantageous pricing, cutting out the middle-man and adding competition.

So there could be a market and it could work. I guess it’s up to the industry to decide whether this is a sensible alternative to smart meters.

Will plasma be the new glass?

Now and again, everyone gets a chance to show the true depths of their ignorance, and I suspect this is my chance, but you know what? I don’t really care. I have some good ideas as well as dumb ones, and sometimes it is too hard to know which is which. I freely admit that my physics is very rusty. However….

Plasma is essentially a highly ionised gas; lots of ions and free electrons. It conducts electricity so is ideally suited to magnetic confinement. You make a current in it, and use magnetic field interaction with that current to hold it in place.It can also hold a decent charge overall, positive or negative. That means it interacts electrostatically as well as magnetically. Electromagnetics is all one big happy field anyway.

A strong magnetic field can be made that encompasses the plasma magnetically without it needing to be surrounded by a solid object. Let’s do a thought experiment.

Start off with a sealed ball and make a small hole in it, put an electric coil around the hole, send some current through it, and make a field around that hole to stop plasma escaping. Ditto the opposite side of the ball, so now you have a tube with plasma in it, albeit a fat tube with narrow ends. Gradually make the hole diameters bigger and bigger, and the tube shorter and less curvy. Eventually you will have more or less a fat disk of plasma. The relative dimensions of the disk will depend on the intensity and control of the magnetic field, the ionisation of the plasma and any currents you make in it.

With some good physics and engineering, adequate sensing and a decent control system, I reckon it should be possible to make reasonable sized disks of plasma. So, make two of them. Put the two disks reasonable close and face to face. Arrange them so that the electric currents in the plasmas run in different directions too. If they are both similarly charged overall they will repel electrostatically and their internal magnetic fields will also interact, but the managed applied magnetic fields could stop them deforming too much. Add more disks, and we have plasma plywood. Let’s call it plasma-ply for lack of a better word.

I can’t calculate how thin this plasma-ply could be made. I suspect that with future materials such as graphene and room temperature superconductors, future remote sensing and advanced computer control systems, they could be pretty damned good. If you try to deform one of these disks, it would resist, because the magnetic and electrical interactions would create force to keep it in place. We have another name for that. We call it a force field and we see them in every space opera. If the surrounding coils and other stuff is just a think ring, as you’d expect, you’d have a round window. Maybe a smallish window, but you could use a lot of the coils to make a big window in a honeycomb structure.

So we can bin the word plasma-ply and start using the words we already have. We will have force fields and plasma windows. Plasma will be the new glass, and an important 21st century building material.