Monthly Archives: September 2007

eBay widgetised


I’m sitting with Jonathan Gabbai from eBay at Olympia and he’s just told me about eBay To Go, which is a pretty nifty way of embedding practically any eBay object in a web page. That’s what I call widgetisation.

Jonathan’s telling me that this is a great way to expose the company’s API to users who may not know what an API is. It’s an example of a business making use of its own API to package services for partners. The widgets are a bit wide for your sidebar right now but will work fine in a blog entry. Jonathan reckons there’ll be a more flexible version along soon. Can’t wait.

I’ve chosen to embed a search term (‘Nikkor’) but you can embed individual auctions and you can even specify a fall-back for when the auction expires (after 3 months). I expect a wave of blogs featuring stuff that’s happening at eBay right now, especially once users can earn an affiliate’s commission for carrying the widget (which is also coming, Jonathan says). People will ‘curate’ eBay in much the same way we’re ‘curating’ Radio 4 over at Speechification.

Stopping a run

Queuing outside a Northern Rock branch, September 2007. Pic by www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics/So let’s go over the logic of a run on a bank again shall we.

To begin with, I guess it’s worth repeating, a run is never a good thing, neither for the bank nor for the wider economy. Runs rob institutions of the funds they need to operate. At best they freeze investment and lending; at worst they trash businesses, jobs and livelihoods.

The greater good requires that runs like this not happen, that customers just sit tight and make like nothing happened. But this is one of those situations where the greater good flatly contradicts the individual good. The people withdrawing their funds are not selfish, panicky chavs. They’re rational economic actors obeying a very simple imperative: reduce risk.

The collective good doesn’t get a look-in here because it offers no benefit to the saver beyond a warm feeling. The system, in fact, explicitly excludes such collective benefits. There’s no ‘collective good’ box to tick on the application form. Even the most altruistic saver would be foolish to do anything other than cut and run. Paying attention to the big picture is, for the individual saver, irrational.

The logic of the run is, frankly, unarguable: while funds in the bank are exposed to extra risk it makes perfect sense to move them elsewhere – even where the actual risk is slight or even illusory. The only possible counter to a run like this is an explicit incentive to leave your money put or an outright prohibition on removing it.

Once the run has begun, reassurance – no matter how authoritative – has no further use: only specific, concrete economic measures (compensation, guarantees or penalties) can stop a run. It’s only rational to stay at home and ignore the run if you’re provided with a balancing benefit for doing so. Ministers, central bankers, regulators and pundits can say what they want: the run has its own logic and will continue until that logic is reversed.

In the event, the Bank of England has stepped in and promised to guarantee savers’ funds but, had they felt like it, Northern Rock could have tried to stop the run directly. The bank could have increased interest rates for savers to a better-than-market rate or provided bonuses for loyal savers. The Government could even have used special powers to stop the run dead, freezing accounts until things calm down (history suggests this kind of action just defers the run, though).

Stop Press: the power of the run is considerable, though, and this morning die-hard Northern Rock paranoids are still queuing round the block. It remains to be seen what can actually stop this run: perhaps a personal visit from the Chancellor or a tour of the Bank of England.

The intense drama of the last few days will probably be repeated at other lenders over-dependent on the wholesale money markets and, presumably, the Bank will step in to support them too. The rational thing to do right now is probably to get your money into the Northern Rock.

(Picture by Dominic’s Pics)

Keen and Twitter

twitter.com/fairfield5ls

Read a bit of Andrew Keen at lunchtime. I do feel like I ought to. I like heretics. Still, it’s a pretty miserable read. Immediately cheered up when I got back to my desk, though, by a tweet from my 9 year-old boy’s class saying: “We have just compared two story openings. We have focused on the characters and settings.” His class and the other year 5 class at his school are using Twitter to update the world on what they’re up to.

A couple of kids in each class act as ‘Twitter monitors’. They send a couple of updates per day, that’s all, but it’s a really heart-warming thing: I’m getting a stream of tiny snap-shots from the chalkface. I feel closer to my Son and to what he’s learning (and it’s an improvement on the “er… I forgot” that I get if I ask him what he did at school today).

The idea is to give outsiders (principally parents) an insight into classroom activities and, ultimately, to connect classes together. A class here in the UK could follow one in India, for instance, and vice versa. I’m pretty sure Mr Keen would hate this, of course. But am I bothered?

Transforming trade unions

The debate about wage discipline leaves a lot unsaid. Unions, government and employers all have their points of view but none can acknowledge the simple economic truth that underlies the need to keep salaries under control. It’s not a pleasant truth.

I think we’d rather not think about it. We ought to, though, because it’s fundamental to the fairness of our society which, as everyone knows, is now at an all time low.

It goes like this: to keep inflation under control we need to keep the wages of ordinary working people under control. Even where the wages of the those ordinary people aren’t the main problem we still need to keep them under control because… well… because we can. We can’t control the wages of the rich or even the fairly well off because they have market power. They have clout because they have skills that are in demand and jobs that are hard to fill.

Holding down the wages of people in highly-paid knowledge economy jobs will drive people to other markets and other sectors where there’s less pressure on earnings. So, poorer people, who can’t take off for another employer or jurisdiction with alacrity, take the brunt and the high-fliers float free. Gordon Brown doesn’t (can’t) go to the chartered accountants or the hedge fund managers and ask them to hold their wages down so he goes to the TUC instead.

Everyone knows this and – especially if you’re one of those low-paid workers – it leaves a really nasty taste in the mouth. Bitterness and conflict follow. Self-destructive, counter-productive and unpopular strikes will make things worse but they’ll happen anyway because that’s what you get when you make people feel undervalued. It hurts their feelings. They react negatively.

Brown will win this round: his speech at the TUC was politically brave, principled and economically sound but, let’s face it, deeply wounding to working people. Is there a way round this? Can a society behave properly towards its lowest-paid workers while observing liberal market orthodoxy and keeping inflation under control? Maybe.

Some economies seem to manage this balancing act. Nordic states where the gap between rich and poor is much smaller, for instance. But in these countries there’s a much more explicit social contract. People seem to accept that a fair deal for poorer workers requires fewer perks for the rich. Frustration and resentment are kept in check.

The other approach – one we seem to find equally unpalatable – would be to boost the marketability of those low-paid workers. Give them a bit of a kick up the arse and get them onto training courses and up the career ladder and into the protected class of higher value workers. There’s merit in this too – although it sounds a bit Norman Tebbit.

Poor people have low self-esteem (as a rule) and find it harder to improve their circumstances than people who already have. A bitter, defeated attitude is a necessary consequence. Direct action to improve people’s attitude to life, their aspirations and their prospects would help and trade unions might be just the people to deliver it.

What if the unions stopped organising disputes and started organising courses? What if they invested those still substantial union subs in colleges, stimulating publications and self-esteem workshops? I’m not joking. The new model trade union could be a capacity building club: an accessible, positive and self-aware institution whose primary goal is not defending the status quo but improving members’ prospects. Hopeless, I suppose.

Deli duel

Yummies Deli in Radlett, Hertfordshire
Tzar Deli in Radlett
Here in Radlett on the Northern fringes of London’s suburbs we’re getting ready for an awesome deli smackdown. Yummies, the incumbent – just renovated and under new ownership – is getting ready to take on nervous-looking newcomer Tzar, a few doors down the road and now sporting a sightly defensive banner saying “it happened here first”.

Can both survive, even thrive, in a community of 8,000? Will Yummies exploit the home advantage (they’ve been selling bagels and Chollas here for years) and see off the pretender? Can Tzar’s slightly fancier produce (and tables to sit at while you’re eating it!) overturn the status quo and triumph? It could go either way. Gripping stuff.

Hacking the iPhone

George Hotz, iPhone geek and science fair celebrity

I love this lad‘s story. I hope he can take this globe spanning triumph of geek ingenuity and teenage self-belief and build something really substantial on it. He’s just started his degree course so he has plenty of time to screw it up.

Seriously, though, smart kids like George Hotz will form the next generation of leaders. Look at the US Presidency. In the current crop of candidates and hopefuls you’re seeing the last gasp of the big-picture, hyper-charismatic presidential pretender. The next US President will be a man on the old model: a Kennedy (Obama), a Reagan (Thompson), a Clinton (Edwards). The one after that, though, will be a geek. I’ll bet you a tenner…

Mid-century masterpieces

Another great big muscular 20th Century prom last night, with exceptional music from the old Austro-Hungary. I’m a sucker for this kind of ambitious, cerebral and passionate music: something dark and vital about it. Something to do with its origin slap bang in the middle of Europe during its most turbulent century too.

These works are like the mirror twins of the big-hearted, optimistic, melodic American music I blogged last week. Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is particularly awesome and mysterious and the Ligeti is the most gripping, claustrophobic sound you’ll hear this week (both pieces were used by Kubrick in movie soundtracks, by the way). Listen again here (at least until next Tuesday).

Making TV news more open

what a marker system for TV news production might look for

Channel 5′s proposal to make TV news more honest should become a standard for transparency in media production.

David Kermode announced that Channel 5 news is banning ‘noddies’ and some of the other artefacts of old school news production. This is a big deal. Channel 5′s been trying to shake up news for a while – user-contributed content is a big part of their offer already. This is the proper role of a third or fourth ranking player: keep shaking things up, keep provoking the big boys.

Kermode’s announcement is clever and provocative. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I find myself getting a bit overexcited about the potential for Channel 5′s bold self-denying ordnance.

What if Kermode’s idea turned into a new framework for editing and presenting news on TV? What if his promise not to hide edits – not to fake the passage of time, not to wrap stories in phoney context – became a kind of standard for honesty in factual video?

Noddies, among other things, conceal edits. Once the noddies are gone, what are we going to do with the edits? Kermode’s idea is to use simple dissolves. We’ll get used to them. We’ll learn this new grammar. We’ll absorb the idea that a dissolve indicates a gap, a discontinuity.

But that’s hardly an improvement is it? Dump one (admittedly cheesy) telly convention and replace it with another? Not what I’d call a radical response to the collapse of trust in TV.

Why not take it all a bit further? Take Kermode’s proposal and beef it up: formalise it. In the spirit of openness why not make those edits visible: mark them so we can see them as they go by. Let’s invent a set of visible markers for video edits: a red band for an edit that deletes material. A green band for an edit that changes the order of events. A blue band for an edit that changes the sense of a sequence. A horizontal ten-frame bar could warn of an upcoming edit, a discreet on-screen red dot could indicate that sound and pictures were not recorded at the same time (maybe a wild track was used), another that library footage has been used.

Sounds strange I guess, and maybe news producers would find it restrictive but I think our expectations have been so altered by the web that only this kind of explicit acknowledgement of process – of the artificial nature of edited video – can give factual TV back some of its lost moral authority. It would also throw down the gauntlet for online pretenders, setting a standard for openness that would be difficult to match.

If something like this caught on it would quickly be adopted by manufacturers: edit suites would transparently mark edits, a layer of metadata would be generated automatically: there’d probably be an XML schema. There’d be hardly any extra work and all the time burnt filming those phoney sequences would be won back for real news gathering.

The industry could really achieve something here: inventing a rich descriptive vocabulary for the process of news production, taking control of the agenda again and moving telly news into a new and more honest phase. I like this idea a lot. I hope Kermode has the guts and the managerial support to take it all the way.

The pic is an attempt to visualise how it might work. Click the little pic for a bigger one.