Monday, 29 June 2009

Living With Yourself: Part One

You didn't raise yourself. You were not born knowing the differential calculus. You gave up the piano lessons, remember? That would be why you can't play Blue in Green now. Someone taught you to swim, you had trainer wheels on your bicycle, and there were all those driving lessons. You didn't just ace the test first time you stepped into a car. Name anything you can do and you learned it from someone. The way you suck up to the boss with such dignity? You learned that at Oxford – it's what they really teach there. About the only thing a kid can do on their own is screw up: from burning their hands on the cooker to puking up because they drank too much from Daddy's whisky bottle to getting lost when they went for a walk on holiday and getting Mary (age 14) pregnant. You want to get much right in this world and you need guidance.

You may not have been paying attention at the time. You may not have the maths or the double-somersault gene. You may have had lousy teachers and parents, and you may have fallen in with the wrong crowd at school or in the neighbourhood and adopted ideas and attitudes way above or below your station. You may have gone to the wrong school, no-one noticed your reading difficulties or exceptional talent at tennis. They may have, but they didn't give a damn. You may have received the perfect upbringing for a child with well-connected parents, but yours weren't.

There are so many ways everyone involved can screw up raising a child that everyone comes out of their teenage years with some rough patches, confusion, hurts, pain and missing competencies. I hear they can come out with some polish, strength, skills and happiness – but I think that's just hype put out by expensive fee-paying schools. This does not mean that “everyone is messed up” because there's a difference between not being able to draw a recognisable face (not messed up) and not being spaced out on downers at age fifteen (messed up). It means “nobody can do it all”.

There is no one right way to be a person. There are a few really wrong ways (psychopath, serial killer, rapist, degenerate gambler, drug addict, useless drunk, downsizing CEO, corrupt policeman, child abuser, paedophile, human traffiker, pimp, Taliban, slaughtering dictator and their henchmen, actually, quite a few ways of being a Bad Person) but the rest are okay. You may talk on your mobile on the train, install loud alarms in your cars and house that go off for no reason at two in the morning, not pay your due bills and use power tools on a Sunday evening, but that just makes you an anti-social jerk.

What matters is how much pain you are in living the life you lead. Not regret or sorrow, actual pain. One of the little-noticed clauses about the notorious personality disorders in DSM-VI is that to qualify you have to be in pain and not functioning well. That's what anti-social jerks are: people with personality disorders who don't feel any pain and pay their bills. This pain can come from two sources: because you really are missing out on something you would be a lot better off if you had, or because you think there's something wrong with you because you aren't doing whatever it is, and whatever it is happens to be, in the list of things, optional.

I, for instance, don't do fun. I'm fine with this until the company insists I go on some frakking day out where we listen to empty, generic speeches from the high mucka-mucks and spend the afternoon playing a silly game. On that day I am as miserable as Job and for the same reason: I am suffering torments inflicted by Satan. What's worse is I keep thinking it's my fault. It isn't. Those just aren't my strokes, and I am no longer going to pretend that they should be.

And I'm not terribly good at making a social life. I have some friends, but I don't have a social circle and I miss that whenever I see signs that other people do have one. Just as much of my life, at my age, looks like it does so I don't have to be around squalling kids and irritable parents, or loud partying young people, so I avoid anything that reminds me that people have friends and do things like have eight of them rent a villa in Tuscany for a week. I think I'm missing out there. As I say, I have a lot of tricks for not noticing it, but it still hurts when I do.

Now I am prepared to believe the therapists and wise men when they tell me I would be better off with a social life. I am not prepared to believe anybody if they tell me I would be better off being able to tolerate corporate BS days. I think that might involve the loss of faculties I find quite valuable for the rest of the year.

If you are wondering what I meant by “actual pain” back there, congratulations: you either have everything you need to live a productive and successful life, or are happily adjusted to your limitations, or of course, are an anti-social jerk. If you aren't sure, it isn't you.

I'm just getting started on this.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Movie List 2 (of Many)

Dinner Rush – Bob Giraldi
“Am I an artist?” Asks Summer Phoenix's waitress of the famous and winging art critic. The established artists with him shake their heads: “The minute you doubt it, it's gone”. “You're an artists if you say you are,” the critic agrees, “you're a successful artist if...” “He says you are,” the established artists joke. You can hear the writers Rick Shaughnessy and Brian Kalata telling each other this as they worked on this perfect script. Every performance is just right and the ending never fails to startle.

Dogtown and Z-Boys – Stacey Peralta / Craig Stecyk
Everything you need to know about life, but will never be able to apply here in England to yours. This was the bunch of middle-school drop-outs who defined modern skateboarding and extreme games. Which is why they practiced all the time, worked hard on their moves, knew that “style is everything”, encouraged each other, could clean out a dirty swimming pool in four hours, dodged the cops, and when the commercial opportunities came along, took them. It helped they had Craig Stecyk to publicise them and document their activities, and it also helped that Jeff Ho and Skip Englbloom were true mentors. Oh, and as a movie, a story, it is as good as any other on the screen.

Unser Taglish Brot – Nicholas Geyrhalter
Bear with me here, this is a documentary about European industrialised farming, and if your jaw doesn't drop on the floor at some of the things you see, you're not paying attention. Who invented the machine for gently sweeping chicks onto a conveyor belt? Or the cow-milking turntable? Did you know what the vaults of a deep salt mine look like? The scene involving a bull, a cow and a man with a test tube is, well, maybe that's too much information already. Watching this movie is part of your education. Don't be a townie who thinks that tomatoes grown in their packing any longer. Oh and the editing, the rhythm, the colour, the warm detachment of it? Flawless.

Basquiat – Julian Schnabel
Films about the art world are few and far between, films about the art world made by an actual artists probably number this one. The first time I saw it, I felt alive for a couple of days. The script is endlessly quotable and it's one of those films you can watch for “bits” - my favourite being the painting-in-the-cellar sequence. The performances are excellent, the ambience feels right, though Basquiat's behaviour and the sheet extent of his drug consumption is only hinted at. Also to judge from the photographs in the various biographies, Courtney Love and Claire Forlani are a lot prettier than the actual women. Apparently Basquiat's estate refused to lend his paintings for the movie, so Schnabel painted the “Basquiats” himself.

Jazz On A Summer's Day – Bert Stern
I saw this at a now-defunct cinema on Baker Street when I was seventeen. It has everything from hard bop to Bach – the cellist with the Chico Hamilton band plays the Prelude from Bach's first Cello Suite. There's a goodly cross-section of the 1958 jazz scene, a truly awful mis-match of sound and vision as Sal Salvador plays guitar, some nice films of yachts and some beautiful photography. It's a look back at a different country – when jazz was at the height of its virtuosity and was the music of the hip of all colours. It isn't now, but it was then.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Why I'm Quitting Self-Help

Every now and then I weaken and buy a self-help book. I don't mean the really hokey Men Can't Cuddle, Women Won't Fix Light Bulbs nonsense , or the Vegetarian Pie for the Soul twaddle, let alone idiot pamphlets that tell you “Don't sweat the small stuff – and it's all small stuff”. Anyone who says that should find themselves out of work with two weeks' money in a dead job market, and we'll see how small they think buying food for the family is. Most of the stuff under “Mind, Body and Spirit” in even the proper bookshops (Foyles, Waterstones) is shallow, exploitative tosh.

I remember when I read Melody Beattie's Codependent No More . There a large part of me was, right there on those pages. I ticked the fifteen traits of a codependent without the slightest hesitation: I knew exactly what she was talking about. But by heaven she's written some fluff since. So has Julia Cameron (formerly Mrs Martin Scorsese): The Artist's Way is a neat book with a lot of good ideas. I don't do my Morning Pages as much as I used to, but there was a time I needed to and so I did. And that media-free week? Let me tell you, I did that, and I've never been quite the same since. But my god some of the follow-up stuff has been new-age chanting.

Then there are the You-Can-Have-It-All books. The ones that tell you how you can have a successful, meaningful, exciting life in a great job than you wake up and look forward to. Oh, if only. I steer clear of those because I know they're a crock. If there is one group of people I would wish to turn into, oh, say a qaat-chewing Somali and see what they make of themselves then, it's all those professional speakers who tell you the only limit to what you can achieve is your dreams. Absent their ability to raise the sponsorship, these people's dreams are just that. And we can't all live on each other's sponsorship.

Why do we buy self-help books? Because we think the writers know something we don't. But they don't. There's no research on this stuff. Pop economists always quote this or that paper by some behavioural economist or other, but you will never find a self-help guru quoting from research papers about motivation, regaining confidence, keeping unproductive thoughts out of your head, dealing with sudden redundancy (one piece of research found that people who were chucked out with a lot of money were more confident than those who got nothing – having been in both conditions, I will agree). Even if the research was there, I doubt they would quote it, because it would find that the way you felt was pretty much a function of your economic circumstances and the exact degree of insult inflicted on you. There would be a finding that certain people weren't badly affected, but they came from unusual backgrounds and had rare temperaments. Almost invariably the authors are peddling themselves as the success story – and it turns out that they have the temperament to handle being a self-employed author, speaker and trainer. Which makes them just like you and me. You can ignore the examples they quote, those people don't exist.

We buy self-help books because we don't have anyone we can trust to turn to for advice. Think about what that says about your parents, uncles, aunts and friends. That they're as clueless as you about how to handle whatever it is that's happening. If you thought they had some useful advice, you would ask them, not make some publisher's friend (self-help gurus are all friends of one editor or another) a little richer.

We buy self-help books because one of other of the “whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the pangs of disprized love, the law's delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes” eventually knocks us flat, and temporarily takes away our self-confidence, our belief that we can get back up and start all over again and that there is anyone out there who wants to hire us, love us, help us, pick us for their team or generally extend some sign that we're not a total waste of space. From redundancy with beggar-all payoff, through re-organisations, re-locations, separation, divorce, break-ups, not even getting a date, not even getting an acknowledgement to your job application, being rejected for a job after a terrific interview, to being turned away at a nightclub or pub, finding all your alleged mates went off to a party Saturday night and forgot to tell you... the list is endless. The sources of happiness are few, the sources of upset almost infinite: so few Yes's, so many No's.

Thrashed with those whips and scorns, we have two choices. We can lie down and die or get back up and fight the endless fight. The only issue is how long we spend recuperating. Well, there is a third choice – sometimes: we can organise, so that employers can't just sling you out on the street with a couple of month's money or send the jobs over to Chennai. In the literature of self-help, the third choice does not exist. You are an isolated actor with no politics – though the guru may suggest you enlist friends as “coaches” or “cheerleaders” or some other such role.

Most people can take the whips and scorns of time reasonably well, experiencing a short-term loss of faith and general slump, before their natural good spirits plus some luck gets them back in the game. Also, being “most people”, they don't get whipped and scorned too often – one good reason for getting married and working at it. Some people don't have those natural good spirits, they don't believe in good things happening in the future, nor do they believe that anyone will keep their promises. Some people are just in the wrong places at the wrong times too often, others just can't choose decent people to work for, or love or befriend. Some people, in other words, don't do life very well. Self-help books are not for these people. Self-help books are for “most people”.

All these books need you to have an idea of what you want to do with your life. If you want to stop any self-help guru dead in her tracks, simply claim you have no idea what makes you happy or what is your dream job or lifestyle. Watch them ignore you or worse, tell you that “you must have some idea”. Most people can tell you what they want to do with their lives, just like most people can smile for the camera. Some people have no idea what they want to do with their lives, or worse, they do, but they can't make any money doing it or don't have courage to start and the determination to continue and the sheer damn stamina to finish. Self-help books are not for these people. And that would be me those books aren't for.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Movie List 1 (of Many)

I've never been that keen on the blockbusters and Worthy Movies From Big Name Directors – Mainstream movies. Sure Angels and Demons is okay for the Sunday Afternoon Movie but it's not what I want to watch on a Monday evening to set me up for the week, or a Friday to reward for showing up every day. As I get older, I'm more and more interested in little movies that tell a story and are strong on character and sense of place. (Genova was really good for sense of place: when I emerged from the Prince Charles Cinema in the evening, I felt a real shock that I wasn't actually in Geonva. Take me back now! I felt.) So here's a few I think are worth watching if you find them...

Strong Language – Simon Rumley
A bunch of London-based twenty-somethings talk about their lives to the camera, and one anguished guy in a warehouse tells a story about the night his girlfriend was attacked in front of him. It comes together in a remarkable way and works because the editing works so well. The characters are interesting and the actors are having fun with them. It's all in the writing.

Kids – Larry Clark
Never mind the “wake-up call about our children” bit. Watch this for the breakout performances from Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, the photography, one of the few convincing party scenes in a movie and performances so natural you don't even think it's a script and there's a director. Okay, the lead male characters are pretty much sleaze-bags, but did you miss the bit where I said Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson?

Groove – Greg Harrison
Set in the San Francisco rave scene at the end of the 90's and featuring an appearance by the world's greatest DJ, John Digweed, it's a night-of-revelations story with excellent dance music from real DJ's and general all-round craftsmanship. It's only the second time round you realise how good the writing and structure is.

Baise-Moi – Virginie Despantes / Coralie
Ignore the pseudo-intellectual hype. The first fifteen minutes or so are a standard French abduction / rape porno and the rest is full of casual, sordid, meaningless sex and violence. In the end one of the women is killed and the other arrested by the police. It would be much easier to ignore if it wasn't so well made and acted. This isn't art and it's not uplifting, but compared with the infamous tunnel scene in Irreversible it's a stroll in the park.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist – Peter Sollett
“Are you sorry we missed it?” Asks Kat Dennings as she and Michael Cera go their separate ways at the end of a long night of teenage adventures which ended by missing the concert of their favourite cult band. “We didn't miss it. This is it.” Cera says. And he's right. The night is a metaphor for adolescence, and the “it” is finding their first adult relationship.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Fallacy of Individual Event Probability – A Real Life Example

Identifying the proportion of a population willing to do X with the probability that any individual in that population will do X is a fallacy – the Fallacy of Individual Event Probability. What follows is a real example of it in action.

A very large bank of my acquaintence has a gadget that calculates the value of a given loan L of amount £A and term T months for a APR of r, call it V(r; L). It also has a gadget to calculate the probability that a customer in a credit segment S will accept an APR of r for the loan L, call it P(r). Maximise the product – the expected value - of the two by changing r. The APR that maximises the expected value is what the customer gets.

The most important thing the bank needs to know is what the default rate or bad debt will be from lending to a customer. Ideally, every customer should pay back the original loan and the interest, but in practice some don't. Credit analysts spend a lot of time trying to work out parameters that will tell them who doesn't and to what extent. In particular, they worked out that people in the segment S will lose x% of the original loan on average. That number is used to calculate the price rmax. Let the probability of purchase at rmax be pmax. At the lower-quality end of the risk scale, the maximising APR is surprisingly high and the corresponding probability of purchase is astonishingly low – around twenty per cent and sometimes even lower.

Take a look at the buying psychology. Each of the customers in the segment has a price beyond which they won't go, either because they can't afford the repayments, because they think they can better elsewhere, because the sheer folly of the entire enterprise hits them when they hear the cost or a dozen other reasons. Call that APR the shut-off point rshut. Let the proportion of customers in this segment willing to accept a price of r or higher be D(r). When you set the APR via the maximisation, you are only getting those customers for whom rshut >= rmax.

Here's why the bank has a problem. They are treating P(r) as the probability that any customer in the segment will buy at the rate r: their calculations assume that every customer in the segment has a probability of pmax of accepting the rmax. This makes the use of the loss rate of x% in the calculations correct. But it doesn't work like that. Why not? Because it's a logical impossibility: an individual customer either accepts the price or not, there's no probability. Uncertainty, yes, probability, no. What their gadget actually tells them is D(r) – the proportion of people willing to put up with a rate of r or greater. But this means they need the loss rate for that sub-segment, not for the whole segment, when they calculate the value of the loan. They have gone from a proportion of a population to a probability over the whole population and been mislead about the nature of the model they need in so doing.

Like many fallacies, a suitably benign world will not punish anyone too harshly for commiting it. To get round it in this case, the bank either has to calculate the appropriate loss rate, or has to show that within the segment S, for each subsegment defined by a value of r, the loss rate varies only randomly and with a small variance at that.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Blame The Victim – Variation 1,237

Back in the day when men were men and I worked for American companies, they told you you were redundant or re-organised to your face. Blunt. “We're letting you go” or “You'll be based in Cardiff from next week”. So what are the HR weasels doing? Well, we can apply for jobs in the new organisation. Only jobs of the same grade and only in the same business area. We can “preference” three – our applications will be sent to the “hiring manager”. Except the hiring manager doesn't know who he/she is yet. So we don't know who we're applying to. So when we don't get a job, it won't be because they decided they didn't want us, it will be because we “weren't successful in finding a position”. Our fault. Not theirs. Our fault if we are made redundant or have to go down a grade. Not theirs. Sure, go right ahead and blame the victim. And I have the slightest doubt I need to be out of there?

The next couple of weeks are going to be distracting. And then I can get back to making sensible posts and looking for a job.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Danger Signs: You'll Want to Move On When You Realise...

1.Just how much is outsourced to EDS, Capita or IBM
2.There is no Style Book – anyone can format a letter any way they like
3.You have a better computer and better software at home
4.There are whole sections of the office that are spookily empty
5.Expenses are paid from India
6.There's no induction to the company's products, senior management, history and main procedures
7.All the people you like turn out to be contractors
8.No-one can remember the last time anyone was promoted internally
9.When you ask for any information about anything, everyone refers you to the Intranet, but no-one knows where on the Intranet
10.A lot of people have been in their jobs for less than two years
11.When you ask about career development, they tell you it's for you to define for yourself
12.When you ask about training, it's all online
13.Half the projects you hear about are cancelled, delayed or held over because of some mega-project that is always in another part of the business
14.You ask how you get an “outstanding” on your appraisal, and no-one knows: when you ask your manager, her answer is vague and unhelpful
15.You are encouraged to develop “people skills” and your personal presentation, not to develop substantive technical skills and knowledge
16.Everyone spends a lot of time explaining the past rather than trying to plan for the future
17.The organisation talks about “leadership” not management
18.There's a six paragraph procedure about sending information by mail
19.The toilets keep blocking and the ventilation is poor
20.The boys / men are better-looking than the girls / women

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Welcome To My Wonderful World of Work

A pricing team adds value in one of four ways: first, often as being the only people in the company who understand marginal costing and contribution analysis, the fundamental techniques needed to evaluate the worth of a product and the profitability of a price; second, by building tools to automate price and proposition analysis, administration and reporting; third with their knowledge of the market: competitors, suppliers, customers, the commercial relationships between them and the prices between them; and fourth, by being the only people with the sheer nerve to make the decisions. If it doesn't do these things, it's really only a pricing admin team, preparing and evaluating quotes from account execs and sending prices and specs for data entry.

There is no market. Banks pretend they are in competition for loans, but they aren't. If you don't have a current account or a mortgage with the bank, they might not quote you at all, or they may give you a silly price. The very act of having them look up your credit rating with Experian or Call Credit actually affects your credit rating – downwards. You can't go shopping for prices: what you see in the window is not what you will pay. The few lenders who don't need you to have a current account only lend to the top end of the credit bracket, so the odds are that's not you. There are no suppliers – the money comes from captive depositors or the money markets via the Treasury function. The customers? We knows everything about them except the things any real marketeer would want to know.

The cost analysis is done for the pricing people. The largest cost is bad debt from people not repaying loans and that is the domain of credit risk. I grant that consumer credit risk is a specialist subject, but it's not that hard and people don't do it that well. All the models are backward-looking. In all the banks. No-one has built a forecasting model. They have had thirty years since I started working and learned to look for relationships between GDP (or inflation or industrial production or average earnings or whatever else was published by National Statistics) and whatever we wanted to model. They haven't looked at using Black-Scholes option-pricing techniques, where there is a huge literature on forecasting. I say this to prove that what banks do is not that sophisticated – tedious maybe, but not sophisticated. The point is, the cost analysis is done elsewhere.

The pricing models have been devised and coded (in Excel – nothing like a sharp, professional look) by a specialist part of the business where dwell all the model-builders and data crunchers who aren't in credit risk. So the pricing team has no internal programming and modelling expertise of its own – except me and neither are on my job description.

It doesn't set prices because it doesn't make decisions. Those are made after endless crunching of huge samples by a group of “senior” managers, and they always ask for more figures or re-assurance. Because making a profit is all very well, but it can't get in the way of sales. Banks are not so sales-driven as sales-obsessed. No, actually, obsessed is mild. Banks have a mania about sales. Compared to banks, Mars, Tesco, Sainsbury or Microsoft think that it's nice you buy their products. Banks want to have both their hands in all your pockets and the only reason they haven't taken more is that that Chancellor of the Exchequer got their first. And all the pricing analysts around me do is report and analyse sales, model the effect of pricing on sales and notionally on the improvement on profitability. They aren't pricing analysts, they are sales analysts.

Finally, I've understood why I just can't get that interested in what they do. No market knowledge, no commitment to developing technical skills, no interest in the outside economy, no decision-making, no modelling and tool-building. Nothing I like doing. Not pricing at all, really.

And then there's the hygenie stuff: the Internet connection is awful, we only get to use M$ Office and VBA, the bullshit piles up so fast you need wings to stay above it, productivity is daily hampered by "risk management" and IT policies dreamed up by people who don't use computers, there's no training and the idea of Cool New Stuff being fun and paying off down the road? The list is a LOT longer than this. Don't even discuss the toilets.

And I've got to pick a job in the new organisation – to show willing. They will put me in the one they want me in anyway – but they are pretending we get to choose (or “preference” as a verb) up to three jobs. Before they tell us we're doing the fourth.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

How To Re-Make A Bad English Movie

Things To Do Before You're Thirty – one of many joint equal holders of the worst British film award – was an awful film of a really good idea. A bunch of men who play for an amateur football team are asked by a female journalist what they would like to do before they turn thirty. The journo is a friend of most of their partners. So the men scribble down various answers, many of which are either silly Man Things or guaranteed to upset their partners – the young lad with Billie Piper for a girlfriend wants to have a threesome. The journo publishes the list and shares it with their partners and the rest of the movie goes over the usual arguments, revelation of homosexuality and missed threesome with Billie Piper (I was very upset at that bit). After splitting up, leaving and breaking friendships, everyone comes together at the end to Win The Final Match. Trust me, it doesn't work a tenth as well as it sounds. It was written by an Eastenders staff writer. Right at the start you ask how the lads could be so dumb as to tell a journalist the truth, later, when you meet some of their partners, you wonder how on earth they ever got together in the first place, and of course you wonder what a girl who looks like Billie Piper is doing going out with a scrawny lad who looks like that. The whole thing is implausible – especially the Gay Revelation moment.

So this is how it could have been done. The journo asks for the lists, the lads write down some suitably harmless twaddle designed to be shown to their partners – because they are smart enough to work that out - except one who tells it like it is for him – call him The Lad. Over the next week, they discuss the question, in pairs and threes, finding out that none of them told the truth. So what would do they want to do, they ask each other – safe this time from the censorious eyes of the female. This lets us see the relationships between them, understand who they are and what their lives are like. Some of them, we learn, have Things To Lose, while others Have Yet To Live (this would be Billie Piper's boyfriend) and some Hate Where They Are. We meet their partners, most of whom are Thoroughly Nice Women – except The Bitch and the Wet Rag. Now we know what the stakes are. One by one the men start to go after what they want, and discover the price in terms of work, change and above all conscience. We learn the difference between a fantasy and a dream. We cheer when the Bitch gets hers, shake our heads sadly when the Wet Rag gets left behind, chuckle when The Lad comes good, approve when dreams are abandoned for Marriage And Children, wonder if marriage and children will last when He Takes A Job In Another Town, and the boyfriend lets himself get jumped by a girl we've only seen in the background after he sees Billie Piper going at it with another girl one evening. Cue music and close with a three-way cut between one of the lads getting ready to sky-dive (which was what he wanted to do) and another with his girlfriend getting ready to ski-jump and the Bitch unpacking her bags in a new town. (I like a little ambiguity in the ending.)

Okay, there's more to this, and it will follow.

We had the Big Announcement today and I understand that there were tears and tantrums in Chester. There were some stony faces in London. No-one understands the new organisation, which is littered with junior analyst posts. The job descriptions are a hoot, the roles are shallow and ill-thought out. Of course they are - the whole thing was made up of whole cloth from the senior guy's head. Or is the most calculated series of insults HR ever came out with - nah, they aren't that smart. Between now and next June, everyone will have to apply for a job in the new organisation. If they don't get one - and twenty per cent of the roles are going - they win compulsory redundancy. Now the thing to see is how many people decide they have had enough of being messed around by an insensitive, self-centered organisation and take the money. My guess is that it will be way more than HR expect.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Philosophy of Mistakes: Summary So Far

At the start of this series of posts I was asking why I made so many mistakes. There's been a bit of a lull in this subject – partly because some of it turned up in a presentation at work. I understand now that I was wondering about a number of different things.

First, why was I letting the wrong people see working drafts?
Second, why wasn't I asking other people to help me remove the errors and oversights, which is a natural part of producing a document?
Third, why did / do so many errors and oversights slip by me?
Fourth, why can't I get it right first time?

Here are the answers. First, because I didn't understand that the receivers of a document are The Enemy, whose only intention in asking for anything is to gloat over the mistakes in it. Second, because there's no-one in my team I can ask. In an organisation where everyone is busy and there are few shared skills and knowledge (everyone's a single point of failure) your colleagues can't help you. Third, because I don't really know what answers to expect, so I can't see the wrong numbers. That and the fact that I'm not as sharp as I used to be – even if the grey hair is distinguished.

Fourth is not really about mistakes. It's really a way of asking, why am I so damn slow? The answer to that is, I'm not. Okay, so you can leave me in the dust, but you work for a serious technology company: six months in a retail bank with our lousy equipment and your brain will turn to mush as well. I give myself the impression of being slow because I dive right in and start cutting code – and I'm the only person who does that - Not. With spreadsheets, it's tempting to draft directly in the workbook: the average Excel-basher would think we were crazy if we suggested that what they are doing is the same as cutting Java or VBA raw. But it is – the spreadsheet is the code. Of course, I don't understand the problem when I start and only begin to as I try to solve it. Then it feels like I'm making mistakes or being slow – because it's code and code should compile. So I get side-tracked from the task of understanding the problem and how to solve it into writing first-draft code that compiles. Ooops. I'd be better off if I did some scribbling of ideas on a pad of paper first. That doesn't look like working to some people, and it also makes me feel like I should be able to talk about the task with someone else. Which I can't. It's easier to tap away at the keyboard and look as though I'm working – which I am, but not always effectively. Also, the open-plan office is not a great place to concentrate. (Wondering if you're going to lose your job always helps as well. We should be hearing sometime in the coming week.)

This isn't all of it, but it takes a lot of the emotion out of the subject for me. More to follow on it.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Perfect Tens and Sexy Sixes

The things that obsess a chap... Everyone knows what a Ten (as in Perfect Ten) is, but what's an eight? Or a five? Okay, here's how it goes.

First the general rules. These scores do not apply to anyone under sixteen or over fifty-five. For gallantry, women over forty-five retain their score at that age to fifty-five, unless it gets better. Anyone's score can vary from day to day and even hour to hour: a Seven can, by choosing her clothes and haircut and carrying herself with an unusual vivacity, be an Eight for a day. I work with a girl who looks like a Seven only because she refuses to let her Inner Eight shine through. If it did, she'd be taken less seriously at work. It's my personal opinion that women reach their best in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties – with the exception of a handful of models who burn bright and out. Men reach their best a little later. Young people can be a bit puppy-fatty and blurry of feature for my taste – as if they are as outwardly uncertain as to the exact shape of their cheekbones as they are of their personalities.

Now the specifics. Ten is Penelope Cruz and Christy Turlington, George Clooney and Clive Owen. Fit, sexy, handsome, beautiful and with added magic. Tens can and often do make a living on or because of their good looks. Not all actresses and models are Tens, but few Tens aren't. Tens are the people that other people want to think they look like.

Eight is top-end generic: catwalk model / actress, fit Spanish / Russian / French / Sloane / California girl. Ditto for boys. The keys are refinement, class, style, manners, charm, a sense that they take care of their appearance. Trophy wives and Handsome Gay Men are all Eights. Eights almost always went to fee-paying schools. Very few men are Eights – except for a few years in their early twenties. British male Eights are either gay (Rupert Everett) or put on weight and turn into Sevens (Colin Firth). All the pilots in Battlestar Galactica are Eights. Kylie Minogue is a fine example of an Eight (generic pretty Aussie girl) who made it to Ten (around the time of Spinning Around) and then returned to Eight.

To judge from the comments on the Vice Do's and Don'ts, Eights are American size Tens.

Sevens are generics who can't be bothered to try, or to whom Nature wasn't quite as kind as it was to their Eight sibling. A good-looking generic with a foul mouth or really bad dress sense is a Seven (at best). Seven is the default setting for reasonably fit sixth-formers and undergraduates who haven't yet decided what they look like and who they are.

So far we've been tracking the beauty axis. Seven is where it ends: the Pretty Line. Seven and above is genetic. If you're a Six or below, you will never make it above the Pretty Line. This is the fundamental unfairness of life.

Sixes have one feature that puts you off and one that you like. If they went to the gym and wore exactly the right clothes, they might pass for Seven on a sunny day. Sixes are still sexy, actually, come to think of it, Sixes can be sexier than many women above the Pretty Line. Most attractive or sexy women are sixes, because attraction and sexiness are unrelated to beauty. Any man who isn't obviously handsome or pretty, and isn't a fat slob either, is a Six.

Five is a special and very subjective category: rough but shaggable: you would, but you wouldn't want everyone to know you had. We're talking sex here, nothing to do with beauty, charm, looks or anything else.

Now we've come to the end of the sexy axis. From now on it's sexless all the way. Don't ask me how people get to be sexless: there are a lot of them and for all I know they get laid more often than people above the Pretty Line. I have no idea what sex with a Four is like, but since the human race continues to reproduce large numbers of them, I assume other Fours are content. To be blunt, Fours and below may as well be a separate species, as they will never mate with anyone with a higher score. Four is what happens to sixes when they get married, have kids and live in the suburbs. Go to the NHS drop-in centre in a nice suburb on a Saturday afternoon: all those young mums who brought in the kid with earache? Fours. Not sexy.

Zero is fat, foul-mouthed chav. Do you care about the difference between and One, Two and Three?

Which brings us to Nines. A Nine is the prettiest boy or girl in the room unless there's an actual Ten there - but they don't have the Magic. If a Ten walks in the room and causes everyone to faint / gasp / whisper to each other / stand back, a Nine causes everyone to decide that he / she will be (insert your hopes here). Skiers will think you ski; backpackers will think you backpack; sun-hunters will think you know every beach in the world and bookworms will think you've read everything. Whatever the fantasy, it gets projected onto a Nine – even Tens project. The only people who don't are other Nines. When everyone finds out you're not like that, they get so pissed off with you. Find a photograph of the young Brian Prothero or Nick Drake.

I used to be a Nine until age and a few bad years turned my face into a featureless mask I barely recognise each morning when I shave.

Friday, 5 June 2009

"World Class" as BS

I've been to two team strategy meetings where the conclusion was that they wanted to be a “World Class” team. Maybe that was so early Oughties and no-one does it now, but just in case they still do...

It goes without saying that neither of the teams had a cat's chance in hell of being world-class anythings – they weren't even very good bullshitters. The first team, at a telco, was half contractors and half full-timers; the second, at the current employer, were reeking with the smell of booze and barely compos mentis after a company ball and piss-up the previous night. (If they'd been working for me, I would have told them all to go home and booked them off sick. Then read them the riot act about getting that drunk on a school night.) Both groups had been assembled to think through what they did and what they needed to change to do their jobs better. Neither team had the slightest idea of how to do this, nor, I believe, the slightest inclination. Desperate for something to say, the telco team came up with “world class” as they were putting together the Powerpoint thirty minutes before presenting the results to the Marketing Director, and the drunks came up with it about two-thirds of the way through the day as one of many merely random noises they'd been making.

What does “world class” mean? Well, since they don't do things too well anywhere except in Westernised countries, it means “doing it as well as they do in (insert company X name here)”. Company X, of course, pays well over the market rate for its people, which it selects by a rigorous three-stage process involving actual tests as well as interviews with a range of people. Which is not where the rest of us work.

It means you win awards from your industry or professional body (and my employer refuses to spring for the relevant membership, let alone the qualification fees). It means you're invited to give talks at conferences and that people from non-competing companies visit you to see how you do whatever it is you do. It means every time anyone wants to hire, they say to the head-hunters “see if (insert your name here) wants to come over”. It means you have published research and there are a couple of universities who could be interested in hiring you should you want to retire from the rigours of the private sector. It means the government ask you to sit on committees and you are asked to give evidence to official enquiries. The journalists who deal with your industry or profession know your name. It means you're at least as good as the people with the connections and desire for publicity to gather all these things to themselves.

The people in those two teams had no idea what is involved in being “world-class”. They said it because the truth is too painful for them to describe and admit to themselves, they don't think their manager wants to hear it and they don't believe anyone can do anything about it anyway. So they blow smoke up their manager's... face and in their own. And because he knows the truth and that he can't do anything about the problems they face, he nods along with it. The only people who win are the guys who hire out the room and facilitate the meeting.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

What is wrong with this picture? Click to get a good look.

Take a look at the guy's left hand...

And the woman's left wrist...

Yep... no guitarist would hold a chord like he is or wear bangles and bracelets like she is. Let alone hold a pick between thumb and forefinger.

It isn't that the people who do this stuff don't know as much as they should. It's that they assume that we don't know anything or don't care. But your subconcious picks it up and you react to the fakery, even if it takes you a week or so to spot it as it did me (I wasn't focussing on the guitars).

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

On Reading Roger Scruton Once Too Often

All right, I've had it. Roger Scruton is supposed to be a philosopher. So hear him on the subject of sexual temperance: it is to be thought of “...not as the avoidance of desire, but as the habit of feeling the right desire towards the right object and on the right occasion. That is what true chastity consists in, and it provides one of the deep arguments in favour of marriage or, at least, in favour of the constraint upon sexual appetite that is offered by love, that it makes sexual enjoyment into a personally fulfilling habit.”

This is how a trained philosopher discusses a serious subject? What's wrong with his definition? Not the content, but the form? It's empty, because we don't know what he means by “right desire” or “right object” or “right occasion”. This is why you nodded along, because you immediately interpreted those words your way, so how you possibly disagree? Or you guessed that he had some middle-of-the-road interpretation in mind that involved wives, bedrooms and did not involve leather hoods and strap-ons.

The next sentence confirms some of your suspicions. The “right object” is your wife, the “right desire” is to show your love for her (rather than shag her brains out because she looks so hot in that red dress) and though there's no “right occasion”, I'm guessing that frequency plays a role here, so that “twice a year” isn't going to cut it. So sexual temperance is, for Mr S, making love to your wife at least twice a week (or near offer).

Temperance is modest or self-restrained behaviour, with special emphasis on the consumption of alcohol. The point about temperance is that it kicks in when you see someone with whom you would like to perform a variety of sexual acts now (no self-restraint) and over there and damn anyone who sees us (no modesty): temperance either stops you (self-restraint) or at least makes you wait until you've got into the hotel room (modesty). Now if there is one thing that will kill your married sex life, it's going to be modest and self-retrained behaviour in and around the literal and metaphorical bedroom. There is nothing either modest or self-restrained about sex that's worth having. If one or other of you is having to restrain yourself (because the other one won't do that and certainly not that either), it is eventually going to cause problems. My guess is that the best marriages are between partners with the same kinks (which includes having a very low sex drive) or who are pretty plain vanilla and easy to satisfy. Where there is a mismatch, there will be a problem.

Sex is not a bodily function like eating or evacuation: masturbation is, but not sex. If masturbation is eating a sandwich at the office, sex is anything from a seven-course Michelin to an order-in pizza eaten to satisfy the munchies. The point is, it's supposed to be fun. Once it starts being a source of emotional reassurance or bodily relief, you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Because you're using the other person as an object to satisfy your desires, instead of a partner in a mutually-satisfying dance. Sex is not there to express anything or fix anybody – it's there to make babies and for fun. That's why God gave women a clitoris.

Now my guess is that if Mr Scruton were ever forced to get down to specifics, his view would not be so different from mine. Or we would discover he really was a prissy spoil-sport. All that twaddle about “sexual temperance” and “true chastity” is a schtick.

In the article that set me off, he's arguing that once you take the restraints away, Puritans turn into a bunch of grunting, binge-drinking pigs. The English, in fewer words. Or at least some of them. They do so because they don't appreciate, as the French and Spanish do, the subtle differences between, say, intoxication and drunkenness, or between chastity and sexual temperance. The English behave like pigs because they haven't read Aristotle and didn't go to school in Provence.

Except it doesn't work like that. A Puritan is not going to impressed by some fancy hand-waving about intoxication vs drunkenness or the true nature of sexual temperance. Puritans know very well the difference between taking the edge off with a glass of wine and having your mouth turn numb from drinking cider, and they disapprove of both. They know very well the difference between a Saturday night shag and a couple of married romps a week, and they disapprove of both of those as well. Puritans know very well that the best sex is simple fun – it's exactly fun they don't like.

It's not because some of the English are Puritans who lack a sophisticated view of virtuous pleasure that so many of them behave like pigs, it's because some of them are pigs that they lack a view of virtuous pleasure. But you can't say that – not an get invited back for another column in Standpoint Online. And as ever, he's poking at a straw man: you've got to know where to go to see truly revolting binge drinking, and decent people don't go to places like that anyway. The English don't binge-drink because they are Pigs or Puritans – they drink because Newcastle is not Barcelona. England is a northern European country, and northern Europeans drink because it's cold, cloudy, dull, grey, their food is tasteless, their jobs are awful and they have to live in the suburbs because the city centres are given over to shopping malls, hotels and offices. Manners, grace, dignity, dressing and eating well are much easier to do when the sun shines more often than not, you can get fresh bread at a corner shop even at five in the evening and you don't have to spend hours a day crammed into a train too many people and not enough seats.

But that would be too political and way too practical. What Mr Scruton writes is a kind of high-falutin' escapism, Mills and Boon with pretensions of learning. What worries me is that some editor thinks that people who, given that they have the attention span to wade through it, will be fooled by it. It's entertainment masquerading as thought and an abuse of his role as a philosopher to produce it.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Payment Methods Are Not Product Features

Recently I had to sit through a discussion of why what my employer does is better than what the other companies do. Since they don't actually make anything – it's financial services – it was all about the payment scheme. Payment methods are not product features.

I mean, what would you say to the man in the off-licence who made it seem like he was doing you a favour by accepting twenty pound notes as well as ten pound notes and credit cards?

A product or service is one thing, and how you pay for it entirely another. Insurance is a product, and I'm going to choose company A over company B because of price, excess, coverage and comments about them I read on the web. How I pay for it is more or less irrelevant and may be a deal-breaker (“What? No direct debit?”) but is not going to be a deal-maker. Look at personal loans: they make a huge issue about being able to defer the odd payment, delay the start of payment, paying over longer or shorter terms that the competition will allow, you name it. None of those are the product. The product is, well, gee, money. Not even cash. What you're getting is the permission to withdraw what you borrowed from your account. Chances are you won't even be able to lie on the bed and throw it up in the air. All that stuff about how you repay it is not the product, any more than how you pay for your Bose noise cancelling headphones is part of the headphones (Bose do an instalment plan) or the one year's interest-free credit is part of the sofa. At Hertz back in the day they made a big deal about how they could give you different payment options and how neat their invoice was – as if that mattered. The decision was about the car and the price.

Amazon offer me various delivery options, but that's not what I'm buying. They offer me those options to make it easier for me to buy what I want to buy. Same with payment methods: it makes it easier for me to buy what I want to buy, but it isn't what I want to buy.

But don't Visa offer me a product (service)? Yes they do, but they don't make an issue about how I pay for it: Direct Debit or nothing. The fact that I can use Visa to buy a book is not a feature of the book, though the fact that I can't use Mastercard is a reason I might not go back to that retailer.

Payment methods are hygiene factors. And hygiene factors aren't product features – they are product givens (you know, like not falling apart after three days and being easy to clean).

If payment methods are all you've got, you don't have a product. Or you don't understand what your product really is.