Archive for the 'competition and performance' Category

2009 Jun clouds sports day 003

2009 Jun clouds sports day 004

2009 Jun clouds sports day 005

2009 Jun clouds sports day 006

There is now a cloud appreciation society. You may have heard about it on the radio a few weeks ago. They have named a new cloud — undulus asperatus — from the Latin, which roughly translates as “agitated waves“. And the roughness is what matters. They are highly disturbed, heralding a storm, and yet tend to disperse without one. The pictures above are nothing of the sort: just cumulus or perhaps nearer cumulonimbus.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, and it is true what they say: that some clouds do have a silver lining, though I’m hesitant to agree yet that every one does. More research is needed.

It was sports day when these photos were taken earlier this week, and for the first time in a while it was not rained off, not even just the once. So these clouds were silver-lined if you were the harassed head teacher. But the sun did not shine for the smaller Chip off the Hack who came away with no honours. Last year, if memory serves, he won the egg and spoon race. This year, although the video evidence is incomplete, it does look like he finished the course without dropping the egg once, compared with his fellow competitors who all seemed to have at least one upset. Had the eggs been real, this would have been a feat in itself, but that day it was not the one being measured. Shall I add that the spoons were not institutional dessert spoons of yore, but wooden spoons with barely any dish? Ah well. He is his father’s son.

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pure genius?


In the middle of that 2001 Chapter 11 process, I was being primed for information in the Tipperary pub in Fleet Street. The “Tip” is the oldest Irish pub in England and the first ever to sell Guinness here, or so the free information on the internet tells me today. I did not know that then. There was plenty of free information available in 2001 despite a relative shortage of comprehensive pub histories. All the same,  you still had to pay for the Guinness. And that’s invariably the case today.


I was with a very senior colleague who was plying me with the black stuff; I think he’d been asked to keep an eye on me and my rank-breaking entrepreneurship. I said to him that I thought part of the problem for even highly specialized subscription content businesses, like the one we were proposing to launch out of the bankruptcy, was that so much generic news was then free on the internet. This factor perhaps had already tipped investor sentiment away from the concept of proprietary news content. I suggested that one of the principal reasons for this may have been the example set by our competitor, the news agency Reuters, in selling its news feed to search engine/portal Yahoo!, without obvious limitations on what could be published.

“Oh, I did that deal!” said the executive. Imagine the Knackered Hack coughing into his artisan-poured pint, spraying his “mentor” with white foam. [For sure, that's not what happened exactly, but I'm not a factual journalist any more; I don't carry an NUJ card these days and even my poetic licence is provisional.]

Some of us had known for a long while that the value proposition of unbundled real-time news was not what it once was. It wasn’t a good time to be giving so much of it away. Reuters seem to have wised up a couple of years ago because they no longer operate that Yahoo! deal.

But I still wonder, in my counter-factual way, if such a vast organization as Reuters had not taken that fork in the road so prominently would other news media have felt so compelled to provide so much stuff for nothing? And thence GoogleNews. Would a viable subscription model not have been built by now to get the more innovative news organizations [oxymoron warning] cleanly out of the ink-on-dead-trees business? Perhaps not.

There may be more lessons from the real-time news industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s for today’s media to illustrate the tragedy/farce heuristic. Anyone interested in another chapter on that soon?

Photo credit tricky

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As heuristics go, just as the most expensive wine on the wine list is not to be trusted, writers should be given a wide berth if they quote the first lines of books, especially if they are quoting Marx paraphrasing Hegel.

At the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, a book which I probably have read in its entirety (but don’t quote me), the bearded one says this:-

Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.


Chevy Tahoe, first a gas-guzzler, then a hybrid?

I risk getting into even deeper water with the mathematicians for suggesting there is something of the self-similar in Marx’s statement, and then with historians for invoking the idea that history repeats itself.  Perhaps I’d be safe with Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.

Yesterday General Motors announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  This is on a grand, publicly-listed, credit-fuelled scale (GMs’ annual revenue was $149 billion last year, and it’s lost more than $80 billion in the past four years, its market capitalization collapsing from a surprising $26 billion in October 2007, when the credit crisis was well underway, to next to nothing.)  The German and US governments have intervened to save jobs.

My own experience of Chapter 11 in 2001 was a less remarked upon affair (less than $1billion in revenue).  But at their respective times, within their respective universes, the two Chapter 11 incidents share significance: the words “too big to fail” were uttered in both instances.

There is no shortage of animal spirits evident in either, some interesting uses of expenses, and for those observing closely (perhaps that’s just me in my Chief Brody hat ;-) ) the one may have heralded the other. Did the one in fact scale into the other?  GM is now perhaps the most iconic victim of the credit crunch, which through my long-path-dependent-tinted spectacles was hinted at way back when, in the perennial struggle between debt and equity.

The Chapter 11 that dissolved the news organization I worked for merited very little press comment; ironic  given that 600 global journalism jobs disappeared more or less overnight. Almost without exception those jobs were engaged in purely factual reporting: the scrutinizing of financial markets, banking and economic and monetary policy.  Instructive perhaps, given the current collapse of news businesses the world over, that they were entirely online, publishing by corporate subscription, and over internet protocol for several years already.  They could not be saved because the consensus then was that this market was already oversupplied.  News was a commodity, and only so much was necessary to lubricate the inner workings of global financial markets.

I’ve long since given up the conceit that the factual information output of my professional career met some fundamental human need (except the feeding of my family).  This was a way that I used to comfort myself: as a journalistic form, economic and financial newswire reporting could legitimately claim a fourth-estate function of representing important facts about the world, even if it was bounded in its day-to-day ability to call policy-makers and financiers fully to account.  It was not the sharpest instrument, but it was probably a lot sharper than print journalism which in effect fed off some of its by-products.

I’ve already described how, in my own attempts to refinance this organization — as I moulted my middle-management plumage and temporarily tried on the peacock feathers of the imagined future CEO — I submitted with my colleagues a restructuring that would focus news reporting resources on the growing and mostly under-reported market in credit derivatives.  That market was the one that made sense to my diverse rescue task force: whether their personal focus was Whitehall, currencies, commodities or companies, Essex-boy, anarchist or Etonian.  In retrospect, it is clear that transparency and scrutiny of those complex markets would have been useful in the post-9/11 world.  But in the summer of 2001, investors came there none.  The lesson, as ever, seems to be: if you’re going to fail, fail big. Don’t pin your hopes for rescue on a knackered hack, but a newly minted Barack.

This takes us back to Robert Shiller and George Akerlof’s qualification of capitalism: “It does not automatically produce what people really need; it produces what they think they need, and are willing to pay for.”  Since 2001, it is clear that a great many people, and at the same time too few, thought they needed GM’s Chevy Tahoe SUV.  President Obama agrees that they need more.  Me? I’m not so sure.

Photo credit Chevy Tahoe: anthonares

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I don’t know much about Lévy flights, and I don’t know much about Artie Shaw.  While I don’t have any Artie Shaw recordings (yet) he is a little bit of a hero of mine.

The standard biographical narrative of Shaw was that his performing career — which experienced some of the highest peaks in 20th century commercial musical achievement — was punctuated by periods of creative and physical exhaustion, including revulsion toward his popular success.  So, not many similarities to the Knackered Hack’s experience, except the downside elements, I admit.

In one of his later periods of retreat, it seems that Shaw was preoccupied with studying high-level mathematics.  I wonder if his creativity could perhaps be defined by the concept of Lévy flights?  Now, if you think I’m talking Jackson Pollocks here, you might indeed be right. For the distribution of paint by the very same may have been following some form of fractal pattern:-

There are two revolutionary aspects to Pollock’s application of paint and both have potential to introduce chaos. The first is his motion around the canvas. In contrast to traditional brush-canvas contact techniques, where the artist’s motions are limited to hand and arm movements, Pollock used his whole body to introduce a wide range of length scales into his painting motion. In doing so, Pollock’s dashes around the canvas possibly followed Levy flights: a special distribution of movements, first investigated by Paul Levy in 1936, which has recently been used to describe the statistics of chaotic systems.

I understand there is a risk of seeing heavy-tailed distributions everywhere, particularly to my untrained eye.  But with the creative arts — the clustering of success — it does seem to follow.

I wonder too if it explains, at a very banal level, the frequency of my blog posting, about which I know a few of you are concerned.  To illustrate the two extremes of recent Knackered Hack experience, some Artie Shaw to entertain you.  In the meantime, I will be trying to produce a cluster of posts.  Shaw fans can correct me, but the first piece below reflected the essence of the man, while the second was what people liked him for.  The titles will amuse Mandelbrotian students of markets.  And Shaw’s exuberant swing music flourished in the depression.

At the end of this one, Artie Shaw and sidekicks explore bounded rationality and sum up the perennial challenge for all businesses.

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toxic waste


Lifeblog post

Anyone who has read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings will recall the description in Chapter 10 of how the pressure to conform creates moral hazard. A powerful heuristic or default seems to operate: “don’t break ranks”. Failure to adhere can result in peer hostility. The experience of Paul Moore in trying to restrain HBOS executives reveals just how powerful and enduring a force that can be, assuming he is an accurate witness to his own experience at the bank. It goes some way to explain how groupthink can operate in the face of compelling contrary evidence. To quote from his memo to Tuesday’s Treasury Select Committee hearing:-

I am still toxic waste now for having spoken out all those years ago!

This might also reflect why today’s FT report leaking of an “independent inquiry” into Paul Moore’s allegations contained the following observations from the HBOS directors of his behaviour. A case of shooting the messenger?

They told KPMG that while Mr Moore’s technical abilities were “recognised as strong” and he gave his team a “strong sense of purpose”, they doubted his ability to work with his colleagues. His behaviour in one meeting was described by people interviewed by KPMG as “ranging from prickly to ranting to extraordinary to outrageous”.

For those not following these events, Moore was the head of Group Regulatory Risk Management for HBOS until 2005. He alleges that he argued with the board that HBOS’s sales culture was running out of control, creating huge risk for the bank should the economy and housing market turn downwards, and that there was a reluctance on the part of executives to have their decisions or behaviour challenged. At the time, HBOS CEO James Crosby dismissed his concerns and terminated his employment. Crosby then moved on to become deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority. He resigned yesterday morning.

The full text of Moore’s memo is here. For the time being, it may be one of the most readable and historic documents of modern finance. One suspects there will be others.

Well, in his deposition to the Treasury Select Committee Moore mentions it, but I doubt that this five-minute module is mandatory yet at any business school. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Photo credit: Tim Penn

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