Category: Uncategorized

Who do we trust? Len McCluskey, Jerry Heywood, and SCIENCE!

It seems to be TYR Service! day, so I followed up on a discussion elsewhere about social trust in the UK by analysing Ipsos MORI’s polling series on trust by profession.

Having fiddled with various ways of filtering the data in an attempt to get a readable line chart, I decided to look at net trust – i.e. trust minus distrust – and concentrate on the change in each series, and to compare the average of the first 10 years (1983-1993) to the last 10 years in order to avoid either chasing outliers or throwing away too much data. Then, I remembered the First Canonical Principle of Data Visualisation: if your chart is not a horizontal, sorted bar chart, it probably should be.

The upshot is a bit of a surprise, although the strong increase in net trust (well over a 2 standard deviation result) for civil servants and trade unions stuck out literally whatever analysis I tried. Viva el blob, indeed. (The spreadsheet is here.)

Screenshot from 2014-07-21 14:24:29

And I really, really wasn’t expecting an increase in average trust, although I’m not sure that’s a sociologically meaningful measurement here, especially as “ordinary people” lost 9.83 percentage points of net trust, a 1.3 standard deviation result. The clergy has taken a real beating, for obvious reasons, while scientists did really well (another surprise). TV did poorly. Nothing whatsoever happened with regard to the police.

Business, which I was asked about, is a difficult one; the result here is that its net trust went up, but by so little (0.39 standard deviations) it might well not have changed at all. However, a lot depends on where you stick the pin in the donkey. The rating for 1983 was very low, -40, no surprise, rose from there to -25 in 1993, declined again and hit -37 in 2002. Not surprisingly, it hit -41 in 2009. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also hit -39 in 2005 and -25 in 2006. It’s now at -23, which could be considered a record high. However, it could also be described as fluctuating around an average of -31 since forever; fitting a linear regression through it gives you an R2 of 0.04, aka nobbut bugger all. Essentially all the change is accounted for by 1983, and as we have seen, it reverses to that level whenever there’s a recession and sometimes just for a laugh.

And if you ask specifically about bankers, well…that said, what have those pollsters been up to?

Spam, and the art of negative marketing

I remember reader Ajay wondering how those godawful “Aberdeen Steak House” things around the West End have a business. I can’t find the discussion now, but I recall I told him that their ideal customer was someone for whom paying over the odds for a really bad dinner was an important part of their night out. That’s how they knew they were having a good time, I speculated.

Now here’s a Microsoft Research paper that explains this more elegantly. It examines why 419 spammers are so obvious and their production values are so crappy. Basically, the problem is false positives – it’s very important to the spammer to target suckers and to avoid wasting effort on non-suckers, and because the pool of potential marks is big relative to the pool of suckers, anything that improves the targeting is a disproportionate boost to the spammer’s payoff.

Even though the cost of sending out spam is minimal, this is only the first step in the process – once a mark responds, the attacker starts to incur costs. Non-suckers who respond will get wise at some point, leaving the attacker with a loss. Because suckers are rare, it’s hard to find a way to predict who might be a sucker. So the optimal strategy is to broadcast as widely as possible, but to tailor the message. The reason why they look like only a real sucker wouldn’t spot them is that they’re specifically designed to be easy to spot, so as to put off the non-suckers. An upshot of this is that the people who get their kicks by stringing 419 spammers along may actually be doing useful work.

I suspect this phenomenon – essentially the opposite of advertising, a sort of negative marketing – is much more common than we may think, and that it explains much else beyond terrible restaurants. Boris Johnson comes to mind, as do quite a few other politicians. In a low-turnout context, it ought to work, especially if you can put off the non-suckers from voting at all.

Local rivalry

A bit more about RBS and HBOS. One thing that sticks out for me is that sense of two institutions with a bitter local rivalry, both with serious resources and ambitions, but perhaps not quite up to the standards they set for themselves, with an identity built on chippy bitterness. We’ve seen that somewhere before on this blog recently, and that was based on long-running class-based divisions too, and that ended up in utter degradation too.

I know, by the way, what you readers want. Going by the stats counter, you want more Jimmy Savile content. You love it. The data doesn’t lie. Here, a review of “Not the” Dan Davies‘s biography, and an interesting quote.

The wooden doors slid open, releasing a cloud of smoke and two large, unsmiling men in their 50s. “Frisk him,” barked Jimmy Savile, who had stepped out of the lift behind them and was wearing a blue shell suit with chevrons of red and white on the shoulders.

I was pinned to the wall and searched before Savile finally called the men off. He chuckled and extended his hand, introducing them as Mick Starkey, a West Yorkshire police inspector, and Jim “The Pill” Cardus, a retired pharmacist. “Meet the Friday Morning Club,” Savile trumpeted before ushering the men out of the front door to the flats.

So that’s a moonlighting copper…and a retired pharmacist. The Friday morning club was the coterie of cops he had breakfast with. Now I don’t think you usually look to pharmacists for private security services. Most of them seem rather retiring, mild-mannered sorts. You do, of course, look to them for the supply of drugs.

TYR Pub!

It’s been a while. How about a TYR Pub! meetup?

Update: OK, no point buggering about any further. Let’s say the 11th July. And let’s say 7.30pm at the Queen’s Hotel, Crouch End Broadway N8.


Sometimes you look around the Internet for just the right blog discussion and only then realise that it’s the one you will have to write.

Open newslist 6

OK, it’s time for one of these.

Books: I’ve recently read Mike Martin’s An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, Ian Fraser’s Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank That Broke Britain, Agata Pyzik’s Poor Sexy East, and Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone.

I’ve also got the MOD Lessons Learned Compendium on Iraq hanging about. It’s more like a “Lessons Not Learned in the Slightest” report.

I’d also like to compare LGI/Jimmy’s, per Savile report, and RBOS/Bank of Scotland, per Fraser, but someone will have to hold the bucket while I heave.

We might have a chat about what the hell a “systems house” is and what it has to do with Eric Pickles.

Disgorge the cash.

This post responds to a request in the TYR open newslist

J.W. Mason’s essay Disgorge the Cash! is a genuinely fascinating exploration of the way the whole apparatus of “shareholder value” functions to force management to, eh, disgorge the cash, and therefore to actually prevent improvement in favour of maximising the extraction of rent. The crucial measurement of this is that corporate borrowing is no longer correlated with capital investment – rather, debt both permits companies to disgorge the cash and forces them to do so.

In a deep sense, its function has been to strip institutions of their substance, whatever they may be. Mason points out that individual shareholders, in general, have no more real control than they did in the era of high managerialism, because the management has become more identified with the idealised shareholder than the shareholders themselves, while the managers themselves have become substantial shareholders. A financial-management complex exists which serves its own rent-seeking interests, with the highly ironic result of huge shareholder entities like CalPERS or the Ontario Teachers having to fight their own system, the shareholder-value order, when they want companies that they basically own to stop polluting the air or whatever.

Mason concludes that the enormous growth of finance in the last 30-odd years is testament to the continuous effort that is needed to keep capitalism capitalistic. The phrase “disgorge the cash!”, by the way, came from someone who thought Apple should do just that rather than, as it turned out, make the iPad.

I’ve also recently been reading John Seddon’s Freedom from Command and Control. Seddon is something like Toyota’s number one fan, although in a service industry context. As such, he is fascinated by the problem of variety in demand.

Taiichi Ohno, at Toyota, realised that if the time taken to change over the slowest machine tool to a new task was equal to or less than the time it took to produce another car, it would be possible to make them all unique at no greater cost than making them identical. In flow production, time taken is equivalent to cost. One way to look at this relationship between variety and cheapness is as a trade-off – at one end of the scale, you have something like bespoke tailoring, with almost infinite variety at relatively huge unit cost, at the other, classic Fordism, any colour you like as long as it’s black.

Ohno, however, realised it was possible to shift the curve as well as move along it, by changing the production process to reduce the time (or cost) of changing the product. Seddon points out that variety in demand exists in time, as well as in space. Improvement over time requires change, and therefore variety. This is interesting because it starts to look like a dynamic theory of the firm, something that explains change over time. And it is one with far-reaching implications for the organisation of work.

The two books converge interestingly; I think Seddon’s view of the “management factory”, the structure of metrics with which managers perceive their businesses, is something analogous to Mason’s structural drive to liquidation. Stupid measurements, which don’t actually serve to improve anything, persist because they entrench the authority of managers over workers, in the same way that shareholder value exists to stop cash being reused in the productive process when it could be disgorged.

In fact, you could almost say that Seddon’s critique of management represents the micro-foundations of the Disgorge the Cash macro-phenomenon, or alternatively the micro-aetiology of the macro-disease. A really interesting point of Seddon’s is that forcing people to chase arbitrary targets induces them to cheat, and then the cheating contributes to their alienation and demoralisation, which in turn makes it ever more necessary.

In many ways, Disgorge the Cash explains why we don’t live in a Seddonist world, and why trying to fix capitalism via management or technology doesn’t work. On the other hand, it reminds us that it was possible to mitigate, reduce, or subvert the forces demanding liquidation and that it would be good.