Thursday, 12 March 2009

Meanwhile, back in the real world of blogging ...

Where to begin?

There is a hint in the rather surreal cartoon above. We lost our telephone wires in the big storm in January, and that took ten days to get restored. Then, because the repair was temporary, and the wires sagged lower than usual, a local farmer drove through them with a large and tall agricultural machine.

OK, so call the provider from a friend's phone and get it sorted, right? Um, no. Actually, this could have been funny.

Our provider is Alice, part of Tiscalli. They buy capacity from France Telecom and flog services on as an independent. You probably know the kind of thing. Part of their contract with France Telecom is that they take over the maintenance of the line, by, err, paying France Telecom to fix it when it goes wrong. But they have to call in FT. You can't do that; you can only deal with Alice.

Well, first the funny part (this all takes place in French of course):

"Hello Alice, there is a problem with the line - it's broken"

"OK, are you standing by your modem?"

"Err, not exactly, I'm 6 km away, calling from a friend's house, because our line is down"

"Yes, but I can't help you unless you are standing by your modem and reboot it and tell me which lights are on"

"No, I don't think you quite understand, I've seen the line, it's on the ground, and it is in two halves"

"Are you standing by your modem yet?"

"Just a sec, yes, OK, I'm standing by my modem". I think, dear reader, you will grasp that this lie was necessary to move on.

"Good, OK, switch it off and on and tell me what you see"

"I see an error light, because the line is on the ground and broken in two"

... Now I have to tell you that this pantomime went on for ten times longer than I depict it. In the end, after divine intervention, the baton was passed to someone in technical who, after more of the above (I swear it), did a remote test and declared "Oh, your line seems to be broken".

Hooray! They agreed that it would be fixed that week (this was Monday evening).

It was not. More calls. Apparently someone from Alice had been to inspect the site and had declared that the line was down and in two pieces (I though that we had told them that ...).

So what next?

Ah, well according to their service agreement with FT, the line would be fixed before the end of week 2.

Except it was not. (In brackets, hello, is this a first world country or what?)

Further calls to Alice became more and more weird. Their computers were down, our account was blocked, no sorry, it and a number of others were subject to some review which means that they could not be serviced for a while. How long? Well, a while. Etc etc etc.

Now you need to think about this for a bit (I know I have). Ninety nine times out of 100, Alice doesn't need to lift a finger. If a line goes wrong, it will affect FT customers too, so they will have to come in and fix it at their own expense.

But we fall into the 1% (or 0.1%) of cases where the line comes to us, alone. Or at least the last kilometer or two - a small section is shown below as it marches towards chez nous.

And I slowly began to realise that they weren't going to fix our line. Not now, not ever. They were simply, and cynically, waiting until we got so pissed off that we would leave them and rejoin FT, who could then fix the line at their own expense.

I have to say that the realisation stunned me, but I'm convinced I'm right. There is still a 1/2 kilometer of damage from the storm and it will cost hundreds to put right. Or about the revenue from 3 or 4 years of our contract with Alice.

We were in the shit and they were happy to leave us there. Call FT? Tried - "Sorry, you have to take that up with Alice".

So I got an extremely long ladder, put on a fluorescent jacket, climbed up the effing pole (we're talking 4-5 meters here), joined the two ends of the cable using household connectors, went back to the house, fired up the modem, and had working telephone and internet.

Since we still had no word from Alice a week later, we called out of sheer curiosity. Well, they said, the line is working so one of our technicians must have fixed it. Any details of the above on our computer file? Well, no, but clearly it had been fixed, so our problem was ...?

How about the 1/2 kilometer of line that is still trailing along the ground? You want it raised? Fine we'll raise it, but at your expense.

Well, thanks a bunch Alice, and may you all rot in hell, and with no internet to make your punishment even harsher.

So there we are.

I guess that we will simply have to change to FT and after a decent interval tell them that, surprise surprise, our line is on the ground and please come and fix it.


Blogging is a habit, I've realised, albeit a nice one. It has been really quite difficult to return to it after such a break. But I'm sure I'll get back into the swing of things. Anyway, lots of nice catching up on all your lovely blogs to look forward to.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Broken Britain

A journalist's catchphrase, and not the economic crisis this time but a depressing if familiar story about teenage pregnancy.

The dad is 13-year-old Alfie Patten, and the mother is his 15-year-old 'girlfriend', Chantelle Stedman. Or alleged dad, since two other lads have now come forward saying that they too have had intercourse with Chantelle - who was just 14 when she became pregnant.

The part that depressed me most is not the particular case - it is unusual only in that Alfie is so young - but that lack of critical thinking in our politicians and those who craft our social policies.

Let me digress ever so slightly to mention Signal Detection Theory by Tanner and Swets, which was the product of research done at Bell Labs in the 50s. They looked at the problem of detecting a weak signal in the presence of noise and they reached an important conclusion. If you wanted to detect most of the signals, you would also generate a lot of false alarms. If you wanted to avoid false alarms, you would miss many signals. It's a law of nature and you can't avoid its consequences.

So consider social policy. If you will put up with a lot of discomfort (moral, social, financial) around teenage pregnancy, you would have few of them. If you protect those teenagers from the consequences of their pregnancies, you will have more of them.

If you are willing to allow unemployment to be unpleasant, you will have more people willing to work. If you cushion unemployment, you will end up with more people out of work.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't like people to suffer, not at all. But what I don't like is policies crafted without both sides of this equation being looked at. And it's not even that the policies we do have prevent suffering. Both families are completely dysfunctional. Alfie's dad seems to have had nine children, every one I believe by different partners. Chantelle's family seems to have condoned the two of them sleeping together. And now we have a new poor innocent entry into the dysfunctional stakes. This child is not going to have a good life. For a start, I wouldn't leave her alone in a room with her father for five minutes.

Matt Dunkley, director of children's services at East Sussex County Council, said: "Any birth to parents this young is a cause of great concern to us and in these circumstances we will always offer substantial support to the families involved". Well, that's nice of course, but let's just rephrase that as "We will make sure that the individuals concerned and shielded from the consequences of their behaviour".

There have been the usual bleatings about sex education. Frankly that has nothing to do with it. When I was that age we had virtually none, but we also had no intercourse and no pregnancy.

And shame, regret, remourse, guilt ....?

Not a dot as far as one can tell. It's a pity. I don't know where the idea has sprung from that guilt is a bad thing. It is the surest sign that you do actually have a superego and that you have a modicum of maturity.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Living on the edge

Living on the edge ... something we all do every day it seems, whether we realise it or not.

We had a severe storm in SW France recently - high winds which did a lot of damage. Hundreds of thousands of homes were without (a) electricity and hence (b) water, since the pump stations could not function and (c) telephone, so no access to the god Google.

Everything stopped, and it made me wonder just how small the calamity would have to be to wipe much of mankind off the map.

How many days supply of food and water is there in a city like Paris? (Or London, New York or Calcutta). Two days? Three? Five? How long would it take for crazed millions to start pouring out of those cities and into the countryside?

And paradoxically, though I guess obviously, the less technology you have, the less you are affected.

For example, no electricity means no heat for most people, since the electronics and pumps in heating systems stop working. However, for us, heat means a wood-burning stove, so it was business as usual.

It's a bit limited, but we can use the top of the same stove as a cooking hob.

Water pressure started to drop almost immediately after the storm, as water towers began to empty. It wasn't long before we needed to collect and drink water from our "source", a spring that is in a cave directly under our house.

Therefore we were luckier than many. However, no running water means no flushing toilets, no baths and no showers, and it wasn't many days before I would have parted with a large denomination banknote in exchange for a soak and a hair-wash.

Anyway, services were restored in a few days, except for our comprehensively thrashed telephone line - got that back in 10 days. I like the pragmatism of the telephone engineers. There's about half a kilometer of line down (three or four separate trees came down on it), but they've repaired the break on the line as it lies there, forlornly, and will string it up later when they have more time.

So there you have it. Our predecessors, who have lived here since the 12th century, would have noticed little different after the storm, apart from a few trees down. For us modern types, life suddenly became a whole lot more challenging.

It does not bode well, methinks.

On a more cheerful note, no heat, light or computer = heading off to the Pyrenees for a few day's skiing. Nothing remarkable about that, except for the charming honesty of rural France. We stayed in a tiny hotel for two nights, car parked on the street outside with five pairs of skis on top (just held by those elastic things) and not a worry in the world that they might disappear.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Profiting from the misery of others

George Soros

My wife was visiting friends in the UK recently. Mary, an active investor, asked how my investing was going (we've swapped info and opinion on stocks going back to before the dot com thing). My wife replied that these days I was mostly trading currencies. At which point Roger, the husband, launched into a tirade pretty well blaming me, and if not me, then others like me, for global financial misery, and damned me for profiting from the same.

Wow. Well I was quite flattered really. I was also surprised by his ignorance (I know the man has a PhD, but that doesn't mean he's stupid).

I wondered how many people think like him, so I decided to flesh the thing out a little in case (a) you think as he does or (b) you are vaguely interested.

The first thing to grasp is that you don't just buy or sell pounds. Currencies are always traded in pairs. If you "sell" the pound, you are buying dollars, or yen, or another currency.

But you have already done this when you go on holiday. If you go to the States, you may think you are exchanging your money, but you are actually selling pounds and buying dollars. And vice versa, if you have any dosh left at the end of your holiday.

In a way, all transactions are based on pairs. The shirt manufacturer is selling shirts and buying pounds, exactly the inverse of the M&S buyer, who is selling pounds and buying shirts.

Which brings me round to reciprocity. There are always two sides to the transaction. It's not as if you somehow sell your dollars into a big dollar warehouse somewhere. When you sell dollars (and buy pounds) someone around the globe has just bought your dollars and sold you their pounds.

So where do evil speculators come in? It's hard to see. From the above you will understand that I can't just "dump" pounds. Someone, somewhere, will be buying them with exactly the same enthusiasm as I am selling them. Reciprocity.

Sure, if there are lots of pounds because Gordon is running the printing presses day and night, or folks think that UK plc is stuffed, then someone won't want to give up their dollars for them quite so readily, and can only be persuaded to do so if you chuck in a few extra quid. And in this way the pound falls against the dollar.

Am I an evil speculator? Well I try and anticipate the direction of a move. If I believe that the pound will lose value against the dollar, I will sell pounds (and buy dollars) and later buy back those pounds using fewer dollars and keep the difference -- but only if I'm right. Otherwise, it is I, the evil speculator, who will have to buy back those pounds for more dollars than I originally got for them, and I lose! (And my opposite number wins). It's a zero sum game.

M&S does exactly the same thing. If the price of shirts moves against them, when they come to buy pounds by selling shirts, they will get fewer pounds than they may have parted with originally. They lose.

But can speculators move markets? Not really. About $4 trillion is traded daily around the globe. That's a lot of money. Consider that the war in Iraq has "only" cost half a trillion so far ... So no individual or organisation short of a government could swing a forex market. And even governments can't as John Major found to his cost: Black Wednesday, 1992.

They were frantically buying pounds and selling foreign exchange to prop up the "value" of the pound. George Soros was happily selling them pounds and buying their foreign exchange - he was simply the other side of the zero-sum game. The government got very cross with Soros, but in effect handed him a $1 billion profit. The overall loss to the UK was about $6 billion

If they were really smart they would have sold the pound too. History shows that they could then have bought it back later at a cheaper rate and the billions in profit would have come back to the hard-pressed UK taxpayer.

No, I'm not taking the piss, I mean it.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Men behaving fondly

It's that time of year, well a bit past it, when we celebrate the seeing out of the old and in with the new. We went around to be with french friends. They do know how to party. It takes a lot to get me dancing, which is just as well.

As the last minutes ticked down to midnight there was a fair amount of joshing by the blokes, rubbing each others' faces and muttering about piqué from badly shaved cheeks. The clock struck and everyone kissed everyone. With 15 people I guess that makes it 210 embraces in all.

Now I know I have blogged about (the) french kissing elsewhere, nevertheless I must reiterate that

(a) I find kissing other men strange; however
(b) I find kissing other men strangely pleasant

It is so warm and affirming to have full contact rough cheek-to-cheek smacking kisses with your chums (none of your effete Parisian air-kissing mwahs down here in the Dordogne). And all without affectation or selfconsciousness.

We don't do this often, bloke to bloke (New Year's eve, winning or losing at rugby, funerals, close family etc) but it is a very good way of bonding and something that more reserved cultures have lost to their cost.

[Added later - good gried, that was a bit of a Freudian slip. I wrote "And all without affection or selfconsciousness". I meant of course affectation - affection is definitely allowed].

Friday, 19 December 2008

I mean, how likely is that?

What with Christmas coming up, and trying to get bedrooms and bathrooms finished for the daughters, there has not been much time for blogging. So here is a pretty silly post.

This goes back to my undergraduate days (how nice to know I wasn't wasting my time, or those scraps of intelligence assigned to me).

It concerns two sentences that say the same thing, but both using completely different words. They are also both alliterative. Which prompts my "How likely is that?". Can anyone come up with two others??

Excuse the language; faint hearted readers may wish to look away.

"Fucked by the filthy finger of fate"
"Doodled by the dirty digit of destiny"

And you can look back now.

Two other snippets concern graffiti in the toilets at University College London. Someone wrote this:

"Being an anarchist means you can spel any way you like".
A day or two later someone, rather wittily in my opinion, added:
"OK, let's start with anarchshit then".

The other bit of graffiti that I thought was pretty good was a scribble above the toilet roll holder, with a sign pointing down. "Sociology degrees - please help yourself".

Well, I was a psychology postgraduate, so I was clearly prejudiced.

Anyway, have a really good break and a happy Christmas or whatever else you would like to celebrate.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Hawks and Doves

This post is written with the previous post, on crime and punishment, in mind. There were many interesting comments which ranged from "and eye for an eye" through to education of the criminals, and then the need to understand bad behaviour with a view to preventing it in the first place.

This got me thinking. As a preamble, let me pose a question; one that exercises me from time to time. It is this: "Why do the wicked prosper?"

OK, maybe that's put a bit baldly, but in more general terms, why, when most of us are good and cooperative, do some people take advantage, hoodwink, steal, assault? Why do we find that a consistent fraction of the population are psychopathic; the real "undead" who walk among us?

[Psychopaths should not be confused with psychotics. The latter are insane, while the former lack any conscience and have a profound lack of empathy. They use other people for their own ends, and are the ones who can torture and kill without qualm. They constitute 1% or 2% of the population, and good at masking what they are.]

And to answer my own question, could it be that (just as virtue does) wickedness brings its own rewards?

Let's fast forward to Hawks and Doves, a simulation first devised by the biologist John Maynard-Smith in 1973, and which is based on Game Theory. Simple though the rules are, I think it has something to tell us about social conflict.

Though the simulation is called Hawks and Doves, you can't tell from looking at the participants what they are - just as in real life a thief or a psychopath looks like you or me. The name derives from their aggressive or non-aggressive behaviour.

How does it work. Well imagine a population of Doves. Maybe a bit like the 12 disciples, but multiplied up a bit. Every now and then two of these Doves will compete over a resource, but since they won't fight the chances of either winning is 50:50, and they never have to bear the cost of injury.

Now add to this mix a mutation. We have our first Hawk, someone who is quite prepared to fight over a resource. What happens? Well, sad but true, it's a bit of a no-brainer; the bugger wins all the time, since no Dove will actually fight. Plus he never bears the cost of injury. So he is very successful.

Now what, in biological terms, does this mean? It means that he reproduces like crazy and pretty soon we see a lot more Hawks in the population. That doesn't mean they take over the world though.

As the proportion of Hawks increases so the probability of a Hawk meeting a Hawk becomes greater and greater. Now there will be a fight. Sure, each Hawk in a Hawk-Hawk conflict will win half the time on average, just as a Dove does in a Dove-Dove conflict. However the Hawk now has a cost that no Dove has: injury.

So there you have it, all the elements for a simulation (there is one other element, posturing, which carries a cost too, but it doesn't add much to this discussion).

- the reward value of the resource
- the cost of injury
- the proportion of Hawks and Doves and how this evolves

The mathematics behind the simulation is not complicated and for given costs and rewards, which you can manipulate, the population will stabilise at a given proportion of Hawks and Doves.

What I find thought provoking about the simulation is that wickedness does not need an explanation. Or rather, the explanation is that bad behaviour exists, not because baddies are ignorant or poorly educated, but because being bad is actually quite a successful strategy. In fact, the thing that holds the proportion of baddies down is simply the cost of injury (which you could treat symbolically as a fine or time in the stocks or behind bars).

But you always find baddies. Every time the simulation is run, the outcome is the same. Turning the other cheek, is, alas, not a philosophical gesture to a baddie, it is just an injury-free reward.

Are the rules too simple to apply to real life? Perhaps. Which is not to say that there are no lessons to be learnt. And complex behaviour can spring from very simple rules as John Horton Conway showed with his now famous Game of Life.

The following may or may not be true, but they follow from the above:

- badness is not an aberration; it exists because it is a viable strategy
- like the poor, it will always be with us
- but you can lessen its incidence by increasing the cost of injury or its symbolic equivalence