Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Game Theory

Apologies for the infrequent posts of late.

I've had some late nights at work, which have left a little less time for writing letters to misguided journalists or commenting on my favourite tube lines.

In the interim, here's an interesting article (courtesy of one of my regular readers) on how IBM, allegedly, used Game Theory to plan its approach to Linux in 2001.

It should not be necessary to remind my readers that I am linking to this article in my personal capacity and I have no idea whether it is an accurate representation of IBM's strategies or opinions....

Anyway, here it is

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Letter to Polly Toynbee

I've just returned from a lecture given by Polly Toynbee on "The Art of the Column". It was the Economist's 2007 Bagehot Lecture and was delivered at Queen Mary, University of London.

No discussion of how to write an opinionated article could have stayed entirely clear of politics so this was, of course, why I went along. I wasn't disappointed: she was disarmingly frank at times and, as one might expect of an influential columnist, articulate.

I failed to think of any good questions to ask during the Q+A period, which is annoying because I came up with several as soon as I left. So I sent her an email instead.

Dear Polly,

I have just returned home after attending your Economist Bagehot lecture this evening. I found it interesting, enjoyed it immensely and I am grateful to you for taking the time to prepare your talk.

Forgive me for not asking a question during the event or raising these points in person but I hope you will not object to receiving them via email.

* You implied that you believed you were preaching to the converted when writing in The Guardian. You shouldn't worry. I deliberately buy The Guardian because I disagree with most of what I read (and almost all of what you write, I should admit). I find it can become rather tiresome perpetually to read the opinions of those with whom you agree. Therefore, I make a point of reading your columns to keep me on my toes: if I can't immediately see the fault in your logic, it tells me I need to do more reading or thinking! I don't think I'm the only one who does this. So, don't worry... people who disagree with you do pay good money to read what you're saying.

* I think you were a little unfair to the "anonymous" bloggers who seem to hate you so viscerally. Some of the blogs I read link to your articles from time to time and, whilst you are right that some of the bile you attract is extremely unpleasant and entirely unacceptable, there are some regulars commenters on your articles ( e.g. Tim Worstall) who make reasoned arguments and who do not hide their identities. In other words, those who disagree with you online are not all nuts.

* I was surprised by your frank claim that the facts you use in your articles "are nothing of the sort" and that they are chosen precisely to support the case you're trying to make. This was good advice for an audience of aspiring columnists but I think it also goes a long way to explaining some of the attacks you receive from those on "the right". Some of the more reasoned critiques I've seen of your work have tended to get closest to fury when dissecting what they see as your misleading use of statistics. I remember a particularly memorable article you wrote that appeared to suggest that because the large amount of money spent on SureStart had failed to show any effect in a large study, that was a reason for spending even more! Of course, you didn't present the argument in that way but it was an example of how your conclusions can appear to have no relation to the "facts" you are relying on. The combination of advocacy for state-intervention and selective use of data is just too much for classical liberals to bear!

In any case, I enjoyed your lecture and, despite reading them through gritted teeth, enjoy your articles :-)

Best regards,

Richard Brown

p.s. I intend to post this letter on my blog. Of course, I will not make any reply you should send public unless you explicitly make it clear you are happy for me to do so.

Richard G Brown

[EDIT 2007-01-24 11:27 Edited to remove errors introduced when copying and pasting]

Sunday, January 21, 2007

United States Visa Waiver Scheme

I had a drink with a few colleagues on Friday night after work and the topic of travelling to the US came up. I was reminded of this when I was reading of the arrest of one of Tony Blair's "top aides" in this weekend's papers.

As I understand it, Ruth Turner was arrested on suspicion of two offences, one carrying a maximum two year prison sentence and one carrying up to life (Perversion of the Course of Justice).

The declaration one must sign when travelling to the US without a visa says:

"Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or have been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentance to confinement was five years or more; or have been a controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities ?"


[EDIT: 2007-01-21 19:42. Corrected Ruth Turner's name. Perhaps I should apologise to Ruth Kelly :-) ]

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The transformation of Docklands as recorded in "Eastenders" credits

I flicked through some channels on TV just now and caught the end of Eastenders. I noticed that, had I been quick enough, I might have been able to see an aerial shot of the flat (yes, I know... Google Earth can do it... but it's always nice to see "yourself" on TV).

So, I wondered... can YouTube help me?

I needn't have worried.

So, here for your viewing pleasure is a history of Docklands, as told by Eastenders.

First, I give you 1996:

You will observe that Canary Wharf is nowhere to be seen, the docks system at the north of the Isle of Dogs is present and, going Eastwards, London City Airport is still rather watery.

Let's now fast-forward to 1993:

You will, I trust, enjoy the 1993-version of the theme tune. Very funky. Canary Wharf has encroached on the Isle of Dogs but there's still not a huge amount there.

By 2001, we have this:

The Millennium Dome is now present, in all its glory and Canary Wharf is well and truly taking shape.

Annoyingly, I can't see the flat in any of the movies because the resolution is too low. Darn!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Politics and Economics

When I started this blog, I took a decision not to discuss my political or economic beliefs too aggressively. I am robustly liberal in my economic and social outlook and this means that I tend to upset statists, paternalists and those that believe they know how to spend other people's money better than those other people know themselves.

My thinking has been influenced by the likes of Milton Friedman, Russ Roberts, Don Boudreaux, Tim Worstall and, on matters to do with the welfare state, James Bartholomew. (I'd like to say I was influenced by Adam Smith and Hayek but I failed to complete reading either of their key books, so I'm afraid it's probably fair to say I've only been influenced by them through the influence they've had on the other people listed here)

Several years ago, I was far more lefty but, after spending considerable time trying to understand economics, I began to realise that a lot of the outcomes I regard as desirable (e.g. helping the poor, ensuring nobody goes without food, looking after the old, ensuring all get a good education, etc, etc, etc) were not the outcomes that resulted from the policies I supported. In other words, the noble intents of the policies I supported did not lead to good outcomes. That was the trigger that started my journey.

One of the books that influenced my thinking on the role of the welfare state was James Bartholomew's. I blogged about it shortly after reading it and RedMonk's James Governor commented.

I lent him my copy of the book shortly thereafter. It was surprising, and gratifying, to see him label the book today as one that had the most influence over him last year.

It also reminded me that I need to get the book back! James - we need to have that drink. You can give me some advice on tech sales :-)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

When to buy...

James Bartholomew makes a good point today.

If everybody is saying a stock is a dog, it's probably a good time to buy. Similarly, if everybody is saying how great a stock is, it's probably time to sell (or short, if you're feeling sophisticated).

The argument is relatively simple: if everybody thinks something is rotten, the chances are the bad news is already captured in the price. Similarly, if everybody thinks something is good, the chances are that good news is also in the price (remember that the counterparty to any transaction probably has access to similar information as you... they're reading all the same articles saying how good it is!)

I know "anecdote" does not equal "evidence" but I have been very heartened by my success with this approach to date: I bought shares in William Morrison about eighteen months ago when there was bad news appearing in the press every day of the week. I'm currently over 50% up.

James also runs an interesting blog here. (Although it appears to be down right now)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How well is the UK housing market doing?

I heard an advert for Foxtons on the radio over the weekend. I have now just seen one for Haart. My suspicion: they're now fighting amongst themselves for market share in a flat or declining market....

Friday, January 05, 2007

Jarvis is Back

I must confess that I've been under the influence of too many pop- and dance-loving friends of late and so have neglected the indie side of my musical taste.

However, I saw Jarvis Cocker perform live at the end of last year and it reminded me of how much great music I listened to in the nineties.

I've just found the video to his new single.... It's probably a little early to class it as the best single of 2007 (it's only the 5th of January!) but it is very funny indeed.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

That Letter to the Independent

A commenter asked me which article so incensed me that it motivated me to send a letter to the Independent.

The article, by Johann Hari, is here.

It's mostly harmless but "reason number five" about the massive reductions in poverty in India and China annoyed me.

The letter I wrote (which was not published) was:



Johann Hari ("Six good reasons for feeling cheerful", Tuesday 26 December) correctly delights in the breathtaking number of poor Chinese and Indians being lifted from poverty. Has he ever paused, between his tiresome attacks on globalisation, free trade and capitalism, to inquire as to how poverty alleviation on such scale has been achieved?


Richard G Brown
London, E1W


To his credit, Mr Hari replied to my email and we had a brief discussion.  I think I was probably unfair to him in my letter (in that his position is, indeed, more nuanced than I suggested). However, I believe the general thrust holds: those who claim to seek increased wealth for the poor of the world and who simultaneously fight against globlalisation and free trade and, at best, misguidedly inconsistent.


I first experienced Linux when I was in university (probably some time in 1999).  Back then, I was using Mandrake (at first) and then Red Hat.

The operating system clearly had potential and I used it exclusively during my Diploma in Computer Science year.

However, my interest waned when I started working as I had no ongoing need for it and it was far from being a productive desktop operating system at the time. Things changed last week.

When I was away in Ludlow, my brother called me to tell me his computer would no longer boot up. I suspect his hard disk is dead. He'd obviously been listening to me as he had backed up a lot of his work prior to the failure - but not all. In any case, restoring everything to a new disk (if that is, indeed, the problem) will be a pain for him.

It reminded me that I really do need to get smarter about backups for myself. My work laptop is configured to backup its data to TSM but, for convenience, I keep personal stuff on there, too, and I explicitly ensure that data is not backed up to the central server (it may be acceptable to keep legally acquired music on the laptop, for example, but it wouldn't be reasonable to expect the company to pay for storage to back it up!)

So, during my week off, I have been investigating options.  I considered true network-attached storage devices (e.g. see this PCPro review). I also considered a cheap and cheerful solution from Maplin. Unfortunately, the Maplin device doesn't seem to take modern SATA drives, which is all I seem to be able to find in local shops and the devices in PCPro are very expensive.

I then remembered there is an old desktop PC sitting in the cupboard.

A ha!

A few hours later, Ubuntu Linux is installed, I've installed and configured Samba and all the laptops in the flat now have a Z: drive mapped to a user account on the Linux box.  We can now just use Windows XP's backup software to do what we need.  Result!

(Not quite... SMB is flaky and a single 15Gb backup was never going to work... so I had to break the initial images into smaller chunks). That done, however, the incrementals should be relatively painless.

Who'd have thought it... I do have room for Linux in my life.


I blogged at the end of last year about the miracle of the UK train ticketing system and how I snapped up first class tickets for little more than standard. The reason for buying them was so a group of us could go away for New Year.

It was a very relaxing, enjoyable weekend - even including a long walk in the country in driving rain.  I avoided getting into any arguments about politics (which is always a good thing.... I think most of my friends know where I stand now and have stopped trying to bait me :-)   ).

Several of the party came down with a nasty stomach bug, including the chef for our meal on New Year's Eve.  To his credit, he completed the preparation of the entire meal and only let the (rather unpleasant) symptoms overwhelm him once the meal was ready.

Even more impressively, he didn't infect anybody else.  Phew :-)

Bow Creek Ecology Park

I visited Bow Creek Ecology Park yesterday. I had been meaning to go for agest (after hearing about it from Diamond Geezer).

It was pleasantly laid out and lines of the DLR Beckton extension snaking through (and over) made for an eerie experience but I was surprised at its size. I suppose I shouldn't have been. I mean: I could have just looked at a map beforehand! But still...

I think it would probably make for a nice afternoon out in the summer.