Too much stuff

Last week’s edition of In Business was entitled “Too much stuff”. As the programme’s web site explained:

The old assumptions just aren't working. It's a deflationary age…prices of goods are falling. Profits are tough to make. There is, quite simply, too much stuff in the world. Too many burgers, too many personal computers, too many cars. Peter Day asks whether today’s manufacturers are making Too Much Stuff?

It reminded me of growing up in Canada, when every commercial break on television seemed full of advertisements for cars and trucks. I remember thinking that based on the proportion of ads devoted to automobiles, aliens from another planet would think that everyone in Canada was in the market for a new car every day. What did the car manufacturers think was going on? What would they do when everyone already owned three? I never did work out what they were thinking, and thirty years later expectations of continuous growth still don’t seem sensible to me.

However, the title “Too much stuff” also reminded me of a lecture I once heard by a photographer named Dewitt Jones. He tells an amusing anecdote about “too much stuff”. It seems he was once out taking photographs when a four year old boy once came up to him, and using a colourful, plastic juice container in the shape of a 35mm camera, started to imitate Jones’ every shot. The boy was fascinated by Jones’ extensive supply of photographic equipment, but as Jones was returning to his car for yet another lens the boy eventually said “You mean you need more stuff!?”

Late last year The Economist discussed the subject of changes in supply and demand in an article titled When growth is not an option. It concluded that businesses should go back to basics, back to the nineteenth century in fact, to learn how to cope with falling prices. Apparently the Victorians managed it all long ago.

The Painter of Light

There’s been a lot of news about the recession currently affecting businesses in Silicon Valley, but I bet you can’t guess what business is still booming there — the fantasy world of Thomas Kinkade.

I don’t know when I first discovered his incredibly kitsch paintings, but recently I was stunned to discover he has a gallery in London. I should have known better, because it’s only one of five galleries that feature his work here in the UK.

Today, just by chance, I discovered that the BBC’s Peter Day reported on Kinkade’s multimillion-dollar business, Media Arts Group Inc. which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, in a 30-minute programme on In Business (you will need Realaudio software to hear the programme). It’s well worth listening to if you’re at all interested in the interaction of art and business, but it’s also amusing to hear Peter Day struggling to contain his disbelief. How could such syrupy and sentimental representations of a completely fictional landscape be so popular?

The inevitable conclusion of course is that there’s no accounting for taste (just the money!), but it’s also clear that Kinkade’s work is as intentionally commercial as anything Hollywood might produce. In fact, the more time you spend looking at his paintings the more familiar they seem. Where have I seen this before? … Ah, I know. Kinkade is painting the flip side of The Lord of the Rings. His landscapes portray the best parts of Middle-earth; all the safe, twee places where Hobbits live. No wonder he’s making a fortune.

Cold Canadian pursuits

What do you do on a cold day in Canada? This report from Radio Canada International reveals the answer:

The Manitoba chapter of the Huntington Society of Canada has topped its own world record for the longest continuous line of moving snowmobiles. Officials say 316 of them took to the ice on Lake Winnipeg on Saturday, bettering last year’s record of 307 sleds. Although the effort was well short of the 600 organizers had hoped for, spokesman Vern Barrett was happy. He said it was minus-35 Celsius and some people had trouble starting their cars, let alone snowmobiles. The event raised about $32,000 for the Huntington Society. The record-breaking performance will be mailed to Guinness officials, who must certify the record claim. But Manitobans may not hold the record long. The former record holders in Trout Lake, Ontario are rumoured to be planning another run at the title.

Words of the Year

Last month the American Dialect Society announced the “Words of the Year” for 2002. Although the winning word/phrase was “weapons of mass destruction”, computing once again provided many of the main contenders including: Google (verb): to search the Web using the search engine Google for information on a person or thing - which was deemed most useful; and Blog: from weblog, a website of personal events, comments, and links - which was considered “most likely to succeed”.

Among my favourites were:

  • Neuticles - fake testicles for neutered pets.
  • Enronomics - fraudulent business and accounting practices.
  • Embetterment - as in President Bush’s “the embetterment of mankind”.

Ant killer

A package of Quaker's Quick GritsA couple of days ago while searching the Internet for a way to eliminate ants, I came across the following proposed remedy:

“Try instant grits. The theory is that the ants will take the grits to the Queen, she will ingest it and when she takes water, she will explode.”

I think it might be worth a try.

Mobile phone snaps taking off

The headline above caught my eye, but it turns out that to date only a small fraction of the UK mobile phone-carrying public has bought a new “camera phone”. I didn’t think they’d catch on because I couldn’t imagine what people would want to photograph on a regular, if not daily, basis. Now I know:

… the most popular subject is drunken people taking pictures of themselves larking about in pubs.

Yet another example of modern technology being put to the best possible use. For the full story see BBC NEWS | Technology | Mobile phone snaps taking off.

I’m Impressed

Inland Revenue LogoWell, I wouldn’t have believed it possible! I have already received my tax refund for last year. I only filed my return on January 28 and my bank confirmed that the money was deposited directly into my account by the Inland Revenue on February 3. That’s only seven days after filing, and it includes a weekend. Since it takes the banks three business days to transfer funds, it means that the Inland Revenue had processed my tax return within two days of receiving it. I’m sure this amazing accomplishment is largely due to filing electronically and having relatively simple tax affairs, but it bodes well for e-government initiatives in the future. Who’d have thought that eliminating the need for civil servants to do data entry would result in such a huge improvement in performance? I am truly impressed.

To err is human

Moreover's Classical music news as viewed through Amphetadesk in Opera 7.01While the debate about human editors versus machines still rages, observers should note that filed the recent ZDNet story
Opera: Microsoft is hurting our style under “Classical music news”. I can well believe that these guys may know nothing about classical music, but you’d think their technological expertise would tell them that Opera is more than just an art form.

According to their web site:

Moreover’s XML technology and proprietary rules-based categorization process ensure unrivaled quality of coverage and speed of delivery.

Unlike automatic statistical approaches to classification that are limited to 85% percent accuracy, Moreover’s hybrid technology that combines automatic techniques and human editors guarantees near-perfect accuracy, continuously.

Near-perfect accuracy? Although you can’t see it in the image above (click on the image for a larger view), the same mistake was repeated twice more with the same story from other sources. Someone needs to change the rule that references to “opera” should always be classified as classical music.

Good or bad? You decide

Here’s another example of the media interpreting the same news in different ways. This morning the BBC and the Financial Times both reported the latest change in house prices as determined by the Halifax Building Society. The difference was that the BBC focussed on the direction of the trend (no news there really, prices are still going up), while the FT reported the change in the strength of the trend (not as strong as in recent months).

The BBC headline was Housing market stays strong and the article lead with:

The housing market remained strong during January with prices increasing by 1.5%, new figures suggest.
The UK’s biggest mortgage lender, Halifax, said low interest rates and low unemployment were continuing to drive the market.

The increase pushed the average cost of a property up to £123,451.

Prices for the three months to the end of January are now 24.9% higher than they were during the same period the previous year, the survey suggests.

While the Financial Times reported UK house price growth slows in January:

The pace of house price growth slowed last month, in line with predictions that the overheated residential property market will start to cool this year, according to Halifax.

Britain’s largest lender on Wednesday said that prices rose 1.5 per cent last month over December, taking the growth rate over the three months to January to 24.9 per cent compared with the previous year.

Last month Halifax had to adjust its figures which meant the index fell 2.1 per cent from November, to stand 26.4 per cent higher on an annual basis. Without the technical adjustments, the index would have risen 1 per cent in December over November.

So is the trend in house prices good or bad, or is the change in the trend significant? The media can’t make up its mind, so it’s up to you.