stopping time


There is an expression in probability theory that I’m not qualified to explain with perfect accuracy: “stopping time”. It is used to describe the uncertain length of a gambler’s sojourn at the roulette table when he is determined to double his money; stopping time arrives when either the target is reached or the gambler runs out of money.

In a way, a blog’s lifespan might be defined by such a period. How long to devote to it? Is there a target audience or revenue to make it worthwhile before interest or ideas run out? Perhaps too, the offline period (as the Knackered Hack has just experienced) might be defined by stopping time… each day goes by… the reader checks… no new updates. When will it reappear?

I haven’t found many intermittent blogs, but I think the concept has merit. The problem is that they are bound to be less discoverable as they will be less aggressively part of the so-called “conversation”. We really should prize those who write only when they have something to say.

The reason for this blog’s absence is more deeply personal, and starting again was akin to that feeling in a marathon when you are forced to stop and walk through exhaustion and are looking for the inspiration or energy to resume running. You could call it “restarting time.”

As the last post indicated, “Opec time” is laden with uncertainty too for that small group of journalists who have had to cover such events. And it was my early journalistic life in hotels in Geneva or Vienna, dominated by chases along corridors and into lifts, that I recalled in some weird way just a few weeks ago when I was confined to a hospital after my father suffered a catastrophic and ultimately fatal accident.

Waiting around for endless hours, eating a fragmented and unfamiliar diet, anxious for the intermittent appearance of very smart gentlemen with sophisticated foreign accents dropping snippets of information (sometimes contradictory) that would be pondered and re-analysed by several minds in various states of exhaustion for more meaning than they might actually contain. That was just like Opec, except that the stakes were higher. I also cared more about both the process and outcome. And overtime was not being paid. You know the end will come; the form, and exactly when, is uncertain. Everyone on the outside needs concrete facts and predictions, but the truth is just a mess.

Opec seems a slightly more formal and organized event these days, but I have no particular insight. In my day — in the ’90s — Opec lacked the glamour it acquired with people like Sheikh Yamani and Kuwaiti Sheikh Ali Khalifa Al-Sabah in the previous decade. It had lost the power to influence events, but not the members of the press corps that gloried endlessly in those good old days. Sheikh Ali was still around for a while, and from my perspective (and I guess a good many others) was the indirect cause of the First Gulf War, through the policy of flagrant quota violation which provoked Saddam Hussein’s invasion.

Oil prices were then usually in the toilet. Opec itself maintained a reference price of $18, which was always seen as a joke, because it scarcely ever reached that price. The meetings themselves were characterized by endless delays, meeting times that were never accurate, and lots of bilateral chats between ministers trying to hatch putative agreements, with the Venezuelans and Indonesians frequently playing a bridging role between different camps. How things change. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the funniest moments was when the Geneva Intercontinental gave all delegates and press a free plastic Swatch-style watch with the Opec’s logo on it. It kept perfect time, and mine still works.


But with prices for a barrel of crude around $100, and a litre of petrol in the UK costing £1, or 99.9p at Sainsbury’s (see above) it’s worthwhile remembering that these are just prices. They are not bounded by any physical reality. There’s been enough oil in ships, pipelines and refineries to satisfy us throughout this period. But with prices, anything is possible.

It’s a point that the directors of Northern Rock might take heed of. Today, they complained that all bids received had undervalued the company. When you’re in hock to the British taxpayer by the amount they are, it’s a bad time to be suffering from the endowment effect. Stopping time looks set for February.

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