Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Irrational economics

I lived on the edge of the city (as in the square mile where the banking is done in London) for several years, and I can understand the peculiar fascination I feel towards the current meltdown as being heavily influenced by the general unpleasantness of having to share space and transport with so many merchant bankers.

I feel a little disappointed that I haven't finished The Survival Paradox quicker, because one of the themes running through it is the unreasonableness of the modern obsession with 'rational' economics.

Firstly, there is a difference between 'rational' and 'reasonable'. There is a wonderful 'rational' solution to the 'Fox, Chicken, Grain' puzzle, in which a farmer has to use a small boat, in which he can only transport himself and one of his cargo (fox, chicken or grain) at a time, to cross a river. Leaving the fox with the chicken, or the chicken with the grain will result in disaster. The rational solution is satisfying to work out, but the reasonable question remains: why is a farmer carrying a live fox around with him?

The number of important decisions made daily on the basis that they are rational is something that genuinely concerns me. Particularly when at its core, western rational economics has an apparently bonkers principle: compound interest.

Older civilisations recognised that compound interest wasn't viable, because while value was still linked to concrete stuff (be it gold, sheep or grain) a debt or investment subject to compound interest would one day require you to pay back more 'stuff' than there was on the earth. Which would be silly.

When we magically unlinked value from the concrete world and created the paper based currency we know as money today it was intended to be a 'promise' which could be exchanged for real gold when the time came. But even 300 years ago, over confident banks released more paper money than they could back up with gold in their vaults, assuming that the flow of gold would be so continuous that as long as their hands moved quicker than the investors' eyes then all would be well. Then there was a war and the gold supply dried up and some of the paper money became worthless.

Fearing that this might happen again, instead of passing legislation that prevented banks from issuing more paper than they had gold, in 1833 a law was passed 'guaranteeing' the value of the paper currency, so that people would continue to have confidence in it, even in times of low gold supply. (It was only passed in England and Wales, there is still no legal guarantee of bank notes in Scotland).

So - here we have a prime example of what I have been calling 'The Alpha Trap' in action. Alphas have privilege. The status of an alpha is a result of the status quo - whether that is a set of collective beliefs which holds them to be special (king, queen, priest, soothsayer) or a common understanding of today's survival problems which frames them as an appropriate solution (politicians, CEOs, football managers). So, what is the number one priority of an alpha? 

Maintaining the status quo - because this is what affords them their privilege.

The Alpha Trap is particularly rife in rational economics. 'Rational' Economics is a game which relies upon most of the participants having a rough understanding of the 'rules', while a few alphas gain advantage by having a more in-depth understanding and a closer position to the levers. House prices are linked to interest rates because we believe them to be, and so on. The people who repeatedly reinforce the rules are of course those alphas who personally benefit from being able to expertly play the system. If we decided the rules were nonsense then those alphas would quickly find themselves unable to maintain their privilege.

Wouldn't that be kind of fun?

I have to admit that I am reacting to each further news bulletin promising impending doom with a little bit of glee. And also sadness, because I've read that one tenth of American families are more than 3 months in arrears with their mortgages, and I've no doubt that those people are experiencing stress and pain. What interests me though is how a government can dress up a rescue package as being for the benefit of those people when it is so clearly geared to the advantage of the financial sector. If you want to prevent families having their homes repossessed, pass a law preventing repossessions.

For global politics I can see the current crisis as wonderful and positive. Do I sound insane? 

The reason for my optimism is that capitalist westerners are caught in a set of thinking where we confuse having more 'stuff' for being better people. To solve the impending Climate Change crisis we're going to have to cooperate with other societies who don't have as much 'stuff' as we do, and frankly we collectively look down upon those people because they don't have iPods. If we don't shift our attitudes rapidly then we'll see millions, even billions of people in the undeveloped world die through human-generated natural disaster during the next few decades.

So, I'm looking at the markets falling, and the banks collapsing, and the government experts backed into a corner where they finally admit that 'rational' economics isn't actually a proper science, despite all the numbers and graphs and formulas, and is really just a widely held set of beliefs ... possibly even superstitions ... and I'm excited. Because normal people are losing their faith in the status quo of rational economics, and starting to ask the question "what next?"

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Introducing The Survival Paradox - Badgered up!

You'd be forgiven for thinking that if something was "badgered up" it was in less than working order, but in our family it means quite the opposite.

Above is a screenshot of some Badger magic.  Click here to get a pdf download of the opening gambit of the climate change book we've been working on. 

Even better than a cheap vodka, it has been filtered by both the producer, Julian and the super-clever Ms Melancholy, before being passed to the ultra-talented Badger for a final 'badgering up'.

The book uses a split between the left hand page (graphics, cartoons, graphs and illustrations) and the right hand page (body text) to try to engage both sides of your brain in the discussion. Badger has whisked up the illustrations based on my rubbish approximations, and suddenly it feels like a really-really-real book.

I've still got the very ending chapters to complete. And then there will be A Big Announcement. Because something quite amazing is happening when we launch it.

We've got some very early feelers out to publishers - so far it's quite positive, but if you happen to own a massive publishing company and want this book then do feel free to email ;) We are also considering web-publishing via something like Lulu, because it would allow us to keep it available all over the world, and not get buried in the normal distribution and territory issues. There will be a significant web presence because of the Very Exciting Secret Thing, so one more click to order the book doesn't feel like a barrier.

So - please feel free to download this taster, and email me or comment here if you have feedback. (Especially typos ... as nmj and Cas both know first hand, there is no such thing as perfect). 

The book is designed to be accessible to bright 13-year-olds as well as non-academic adults. It's wide ranging in the content - animal behaviour, neurobiology, psychology, sociology, economics, climate science, philosophy, politics - so the assumption is that no reader is an expert in all those areas, but that every reader has first-hand experience of being a human being.

The latest title, by the way, is The Survival Paradox: Why Global Climate Change has a Silver Lining.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

PS I have Aspergers....

Badger and Stray are watching Chelsea vs Man United. I am cooking Sunday lunch. 

Lovely smell, says Stray. 

Kuszczak? asks Badger, a little bewildered. (The Man United substitute goalkeeper had just been brought on to replace the injured Van der Sar.)  

No, says Stray, the lamb. I can't quite smell Kuszczak from here. 

I thought that was a bit odd, says Badger.....

....because I can only smell Van der Sar. 

Badger, who has synaesthesia, is astonished that the rest of us can't smell people on the tele.

Van der Sar smells faintly of stale urine (Badger is a Chelsea fan after all);  Joanna Lumley 'absolutely stinks' (of perfume, Ms Lumley); Gordon Brown smells musty, and there are some people who smell so much that Badger just can't watch them. 


Friday, 19 September 2008

Badgerism of the day

In very serious musical theatre style, we just were treated to:

Come to the western side of town ...
Where there's a badger in a crown!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Good problems to have

Last week, when I was on a tube train in Boston, I spluttered and coughed my way through a bit of slow burn asthma, explaining to the tallest member of Team Geek that my server was overloaded by the Black Boxes widget, and that I didn't normally cough this much but I wasn't used to the pollution.

Wow said he. You have some really great problems right now: you can't breathe because you're not normally exposed to pollution, and you're outta bandwidth because your viral went ... viral.

A great insight.

These are really, really good problems to have. Thank you universe.


25000 hits today. Widget displayed 9000 times since last night. 600 new choices / blog entries. 15000 mystery blogs visited by blackboxers. Wow.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

While I was sleeping ...

.. the number of registered Black Boxes blogs and pairs of choices they've submitted soared over the 2500 mark.

While I was under the duvet, snoozing off my jet lag, over 6000 calls to the server were made by more than 1000 different people Blackboxing.

At least 3000 visits to a mystery (but not random - it's all based on your choices) blog were generated by the widget. 

It is now installed on more than 300 blogs - maybe many more (I can't be more precise because the log files are so huge that I can only analyse 12 hour snapshots until I get the abridged one at the end of the month).

Thank you to everybody who has said lovely things about the widget ... and about me. I have to re-thank the other members of team-geek for incredible work in scaling it up to cope with the staggering enthusiasm of the blogging community. They rocked my binary world.

I should also thank Caroline, firstly for giving me the opportunity to do a lovely widget for her, but also for putting her complete trust in me, as I only had a couple of days to execute it which left little space for tweaking. The team at TFP were similarly brave in giving me the go ahead even though I'd only written a few sentences in description in an email. 

My big question when Caroline and I hatched the idea was will people 'get' it? I can't believe how many people totally get it.

For me, the embracing of blackboxing (omg I love that it has a verb, and corresponding nouns "blackboxer/ee") is more than just a pat on the back for having made something fun. As a geek I have always found it painful that other people didn't always see the internet as real life. Many times I've had people ask me "yeah ... but what about relationships in real life?" ... as if somehow the bits of me that blogged and forumed (new verb, I like) and g-chatted weren't really alive. 

Newsflash: It's all real. It's all us. And, whether it was a tiny seed of change or a dramatic revelation, last night, while I was sleeping, the Black Boxes widget and the bloggers who've embraced it, changed someone's life.


This episode of chasing-sheep was brought to you by the letters POST and GET and the numbers 1 and 0.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Go team geek!

It was the moment I had been dreading since the day the Black Boxes widget was embraced with such enthusiasm. I fired up chasing sheep and instead of a Black Box there was a black hole. The server was out of bandwidth due to the amount of data passing back and forth between 'blackboxers', who were doubling every 30 hours and then faster and faster.

By a stroke of luck the tipping point occurred late on Friday (US time - fortunately the UK were asleep) and I just happened to be hanging out with a whole troop of alpha-geeks in one of our hotel rooms in Boston. 

There was a flurry of clunks and swooshes as the laptops opened. We were living the alpha-geek dream: an emergency that genuinely required the application of the obscurest titbits of knowledge we collectively possessed. The clock was ticking and we were ready to save the day.

At first glance the answer had to be simple. After all, it's a pretty straightforward little widget - how hard could it be to find the right blog to send people to based on their choices? But no ... this particular puzzle held a lot more complexity than you could ever imagine. And, for an ordinary person, that would have been a disappointment. Luckily, for an alpha-geek the fact that your first three ideas are nowhere close to a solution is what makes it really start to feel like fun.

5 alpha-geeks, one beta-geek (self-termed and behind the camera), one designer / technical editor and a project manager. Go team geek!

We divided up the tasks and tested various theories. We implemented a fast-fix that we knew would only hold out for a couple of hours, and then we combined our collective problem solving capability and worked out a beautiful solution. I hacked a temporary version of it that we could have up and running that night, and the boys put together an amazing super-charged-version that will take over this week, and means that the widget will be able to handle up to 100 users per minute.

We tapped keyboards, opened terminals, installed stuff, researched stuff, tested, failed, tested, failed better, tested, failed even better and then, at 4.30 am Boston time, we uploaded our solutions and congratulated ourselves on having saved the day. (Or possibly just the widget, but hey, we geeks have egos too and we rarely excel at the heavy lifting stuff).

I can't thank my fellow geeks enough. They totally blew me away - partly with their sheer brilliance but mostly with their complete commitment to finding a solution. They rocked.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Missing Stray......

Boxers look depressed at the best of times. Here is a Boxer who is missing her mummy. 

Now tell me you don't feel just a bit sad?

Friday, 12 September 2008

This summer I have been mostly.....

...playing mum....

...to our Badger and her broken paw...

...and her sicky-vomity bug.....

...and Stray and her sicky-vomity bug....

...and Master M because...well...I am his mum after all...(not to mention the sicky-vomity bug)

...but mostly to this little nest of swallows on our bedroom balcony.

Frank, Badger's pet killing machine ginger tom, thinks we have opened up a take-away. And so at 5am each morning, at the start of the morning feeding regime, I have been on the balcony shooing away the killing machine little darling to try and preserve the lives of our swallow family. And yes, I did say 5am. Every morning. For 6 weeks. 

Alas, I fear that I have failed in my task. The babies visited the balcony every day after fledging....and then there were only two. I think I found the remains of baby number three on our bathroom floor. To be fair to Frank he had eaten most of it. Waste not want not is Frank's motto.

I think the swallows have finally tired of the Yorkshire rain and left with their friends for sunnier climes. 

And presumably to tell the African cats tales of the strange tiny ginger tiger that lives on our balcony. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

While the cat's away...

Stray is currently in the States, talking grown-up talk with publishers. 

Badger, Master M and I  were idling away the evening wondering what particular kinds of naughtiness we could get up to whilst she is away. 

Let's watch Nigella whilst we eat, said Badger.  Yay!

It's not that Stray disapproves of eating in front of the tele. It's just that - along with perfect pitch and a photographic memory - Stray has this weird 'perfect taste' thing going on. She can't eat whilst watching cookery programmes as she can taste whatever they are cooking, as well as whatever she is eating.  It's a bummer.

And so we ate our pudding in front of Nigella for the first time ever - Badger with a pot of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food and me and Master M with a Muller Crap-Corner. 

Boy, do we know how to enjoy ourselves.

Badger was slightly perturbed at Nigella's unique presenting style.
Why is she gyrating round the table? exclaimed a bewildered Badger. She's postively fornicating!

She's not quite fornicating, Badger, said I.

What exactly is fornicating? said Badger.

Look it up, said I.
No good will come of this, sighed Master M. He is 13 years old. He knows precisely what fornicating is. 

Badger googles fornicating.

Well that's not Badger-friendly! exclaims a shocked Badger. 

Indeed not. Nigella fornicating around the kitchen table is most definitely not Badger-friendly.
I imagine Stray is missing us quite a lot. 

Tourettes marketing...

Creating awareness and challenging common myths created by the media is difficult for the Tourettes Association.  This is my attempt at a little marketing for them...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Black Boxes...

Clever Stray has made a very beautiful and clever blog widget based on how different choices can effect your path in life - the theme of Caroline's new novel, Black Boxes - and we hope you'll join in by taking part. You must make a series of choices and then you will be taken to a mystery blog of another person taking part who picked similar answers to you.... who knows where your answers may lead! You can also put the Black Boxes widget on to your own blog.

If you decide to do that, here are the instructions:

For blogger - there are 2 styles of templates, old style and new style. To add the widget to a non-blogger template, follow the old style instructions.

If you don't know what kind of template you have then you probably have new style!

To add the widget to a new style blog template:

Log in to your blog. Go to "Layout". Choose "Page Elements". Choose to "Add a page element" in your side bar. Choose "HTML / Javascript" as the type of element. Give your new element a title, and into the content area paste exactly the green code below (only the green stuff). You can write text above and below it if you like, but the whole of the green stuff must be in there, intact.

To add the widget to an old style blog template:

Go to your template. Insert the green code in the area which defines your sidebar. Feel free to email me (Badger - as Stray is now away in distant lands creating other magical things!) if you have problems.


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<param value="always" name="allowScriptAccess"/>
<param value="false" name="allowFullScreen"/>
<param value="http://www.newloop-clients.co.uk/blog/bb_widget.swf" name="movie"/><param value="high" name="quality"/><param value="#000000" name="bgcolor"/> <embed pluginspage="http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer" quality="high" allowscriptaccess="always" align="middle" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" height="250" src="http://www.newloop-clients.co.uk/blog/bb_widget.swf" bgcolor="#000000" allowfullscreen="false" width="176" name="blackBoxesBlogWidget"/>

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Things I have noted whilst mostly sitting....

My rucksack has never had so much use... nor has the Wii. I have Gold in every cup in every CC in Mario Kart! I use my rucksack for carrying all manner of things now, from Tea, to cauliflower cheese, to books and warm potatoes.

My toes have been exposed to fresh air for the longest amount of time in my entire life, I have never really seen them before. I still hate feet though. I will not let this cure me of my foot fear, and I do wear my toe sock if I feel any slight breeze in the air. My toes are way too long its distressing.

I miss my bike - but I don't miss the burn in my legs from the hills. I miss swimming more....

I feel guilty for being lazy and think that maybe I should be hoping up and down the village at least once a day, not to mention somehow helping around the house.

My right leg is some what skinnier than my left now. I look unbalanced. It is heading toward becoming a bird leg. Like a sparrow or finch you understand, not a girly bird leg.

I know I am bored and obsessing when the highlight of my day was that the number10.gov website used BADGER as their e-petition example name.

In other dull and broken news:-
I can not believe the Caravan club have not responded to my hate email. Unless of course their ISP works as quickly as their drivers, in which case it will arrive in my inbox some time next spring with a thousand others stuck behind it.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Knitting a widget

'Tis amazing what you can make out of numbers.

I am stirring all my numbers and letters in a big pot, and when they have baked for long enough something exciting will emerge.

Not long now ...