Non sequitur of the week

People say the strangest things sometimes. I’ve just heard Harriet Harman, the current Solicitor General, say the following on BBC Radio 4’s programme Woman’s Hour:

“I’m not in favour of women killing their husbands.”

It was such a non sequitur that I laughed out loud! Secretly, of course, I’m quite relieved.

To put it in context, this is what she was discussing:

Currently a defendant will be found guilty of manslaughter not murder if he or she can successfully argue they were provoked. It has resulted in several recent high profile cases where men have received a sentence of less than five years for killing their partners.

But the Solicitor General Harriet Harman is determined to change that law and joins Martha [the presenter] to tell her what she’d like to see in its place.

Textbook arbitrage

How’s this for a foolish celebration of conspicuous consumption?

Mr. Sarkis said [Williams College’s] campus bookstore made the high costs [of textbooks] all too visible. “They really rubbed it in,” he said. “If you were the highest spender of the day, they’d ring this little bell and say they had a new winner, and give you a lollipop. I got the lollipop twice.”

The unwanted recognition backfired on the campus bookstore because Sarkis and another student were motivated to set up in competition against it. They now import textbooks from overseas and sell them to American students for much less than the US market price.

What a role reversal that is! I have lived most of my life in countries that envy America’s standard of living. Canadians are always complaining that their taxes are unreasonably higher than those in the United States, and in both Britain and Canada many consumer goods are known to be more expensive than in the US. Now, thanks to the Internet, American students are discovering what it feels like to pay more than others (see Students Find $100 Textbooks Cost $50, Purchased Overseas in The New York Times).

Interestingly, the Association of American Publishers is arguing that foreign sales have to be priced according to the local market and are simply an added bonus for America’s GDP. In other words, the costs incurred in producing the book must be recouped from the domestic market (i.e. American students), after which sales of foreign editions (at very little additional cost) simply contribute to the publisher’s profit.

It’s a real shame the record companies don’t apply the same reasoning to the pricing of music CDs. Recorded music would be much cheaper in Canada and Britain if they did! In fact, why stop there? All Hollywood’s costs could be recouped in the US, and then all movies and CDs could be virtually free everywhere else. I think it’s a great idea.

More seriously, marketing specialists would have you believe that pricing is a complicated process in itself; but I’ve come to the conclusion that most businesses simply set prices as high as they can until sales start to suffer. CDs are expensive in the UK because people are simply willing to pay more for music. Similarly, textbooks are more expensive in the US because American students are relatively wealthy and are prepared to pay more than students elsewhere.

Pricing is a part of business strategy, of which the most honest description is to be found in What Management Is by Joan Magretta and Nan Stone:

Business executives are society’s leading champions of free markets and competition, words that, for them, evoke a world view and value system that rewards good ideas and hard work, and that foster innovation and meritocracy.… All the talk about the virtues of competition notwithstanding, the aim of business strategy is to move an enterprise away from perfect competition and in the direction of monopoly.

…The game may be moving faster, and the advantages may be shorter lived, but the objective is the same: figuring out how to hide from competition, or dampen it, or constrain it, so that you can earn superior returns.

No wonder American students are feeling abused. Luckily for them, however, the power is shifting. The Internet is making it harder for publishers to hide.

Supersonic biscuit man

Well, the really big news here this week is not the Prime Minister’s heart palpitations, not the leadership revolt in the Conservative party, not even the sensational conviction of a British woman for running Europe’s biggest prostitution ring, but the end of the era of supersonic flight.

British Airways announced in the spring that it would retire Concorde this year, and the last flight is tomorrow.

Consequently, this week has seen a lot of emotional coverage of this story in the press, online and on television. Apparently, many ordinary people think of Concorde as Britain’s last great feat of superlative engineering. One elderly man even went so far as to suggest on TV that it would be Britain’s last such achievement ever (what a presumptuous pessimist he must be)!

No one remembers, or perhaps more accurately cares, that Concorde was developed in co-operation with France. Nor does anyone appear to care that France was the sole beneficiary of all the cutting-edge technology that Concorde produced. France has a vibrant aeronautical industry based in Toulouse, while Britain’s commercial aircraft manufacturing ceased completely years ago.

Of course, if you asked today’s taxpayers if they’d like to pay exorbitant sums of money in order to transport the rich and famous at speeds faster than that of sound, you’d be ridiculed beyond belief. I suspect even Concorde’s biggest fans would balk at paying for it now.

Justin Cornell in Concorde's cockpit

The best Concorde-related story by far came from the BBC: "My supersonic seat cost

Coupled with a hardware refresh

Recently Robert Fulford wrote an entertaining article in Canada’s National Post in which he gently poked fun at modern society’s use of colloquial slang (see Words for a young century). Here’s his opening paragraph with added emphasis for anyone who may not be quite up to date with the latest lingo:

When I’m in the zone I sometimes think the English language began a process of change on or about Jan. 1, 2000. I have the sense that all of us are now busy inventing new, specifically 21st-century ways to talk and write. Is that weird or what? It’s impossible to prove, of course, and my more cautious friends will warn me against so rash a theory. Don’t go there, is how they’ll put it. But I’m stepping right up to it, because in this business, the word business, you stay focused or somebody comes along and eats your lunch. And that’s something with which, frankly, I have issues.

I have never understood the need to invent such confusing metaphors, and I frequently wonder how they ever get started. Don’t go there will always seem like a traffic instruction to me. It’s what a one-way sign would say if it could speak, and I have greater linguistic expectations for human beings than I do for traffic signs.

However, our world seems increasingly riddled with inarticulate successful humans. Here’s Bill Gates no less, responding in the Financial Times to the question Will Office 2003 become popular quickly?

Many times, the reason we have lags for the new version of Office is that it only works on fairly new hardware, partly because of the way we did these features, and partly because of how powerful hardware’s got. This thing works super good even on a three-year-old machine. So it doesn’t have to be coupled with any type of hardware refresh.

Coupled with a hardware refresh? What he means of course is that you won’t need to buy a new computer to run Microsoft Office 2003, which should help to make it become popular quickly. It’s highly ironic that the world’s richest man, who made his fortune developing and selling products designed to facilitate communication, should be so inarticulate himself.

A bird in the hand

Adam Gopnik writing seriously in The New Yorker about this newsworthy greeting, which promted the headline “Laura braves weasel kiss!”, offered the following suggestion:

A good piece of advice for the weasel-bashers would be that, every time France makes their blood boil, they should substitute the magically pacifying word "Canada." For the truth is that the Canadians — who, last time we checked, kissed a woman’s hand only when they couldn’t get at her face through all the winter wear — have virtually the same policy of emphatic non-participation in the war on Iraq.

Obviously, Chirac was just thinking of that old saying a bird in the hand is worth two in the Bush.

The psychology of geeks

In Geeks and Promotion Anil Dash suggests:

There are many kinds of geeks in the world, and I think I tend to know at least one of each variety. But a common personality trait among a lot of the smartest, most creative people I know is that they’re not inclined to do a lot of self-promotion…

I find that most of my friends and acquaintances who create truly visionary works aren’t really against promotion, it’s just not a skill that they cultivate for themselves…

I think part of the reason is cultural, as programmers have always had a mistrust and even a contempt for the suits, for the marketers who just want to pimp a product, developmental realities be damned.

Well the reason may be partly cultural, but it’s also definitely psychological. Here’s an excerpt from The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability and Productivity by Thomas K. Landauer (1995):

Software engineers (another name for programmers and system designers) tend to have different personalities, different approaches to the world, from the rest of us.

Programming attracts twice the proportion of introverts in the general population and three times the number of “intuitive” thinkers (Tognazzini 1992)1. Introverts prefer their own thoughts to social interaction. Intuitive thinkers prefer the products of their imaginations to humdrum reality; they solve problems by visual imagery and insight rather than by plodding logic or investigation. These traits apparently suit people for the largely independent, sometimes lonely work of programming and to creating the intricately complex and abstract structures of software systems. It is unlikely that they help a person understand the majority, who would rather interact with co-workers than computers and who prefer to think about simple, concrete problems.”

1. Tognazzini, B. (1992). Tog on Interface. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Give me the world inside my head any day.

Dervala’s virtual ventures

These days some of the most interesting writing, both on and off the web, is about cultural exchange, by which I mean people writing about their experiences as they visit or live in new places. One of my latest weblog discoveries,, is a good example.

Dervala is an Irish casualty of the US bust, and she’s spent the last few months living alone on the shore of Lake Superior, discovering life in the Canadian wilderness. Previously Dervala lived and worked in Manhattan with everything she could possibly want right on her doorstep. Now, she carefully plans her grocery shopping in advance because the nearest store is an hour and a half’s drive away in Sault Ste Marie.

Until recently that is, because Dervala is on the move again. This time she’s on her way to visit her sister in Ottawa, but she continues to write about and post her adventures along the way.

Dervala’s writing is crisp and imaginative, and the thought of her trapped in an office job seems like a terrible waste of good talent. A retrospective trawl through her weblog is an impressively good read.

Mediocrity rules

News from this morning’s Guardian newspaper:

An investigation into last month’s derailment of an inter-city train at King’s Cross has found that the engineering company, Jarvis, failed to file paperwork for maintenance to a crucial set of points.

Jarvis has suspended an engineering supervisor after the accident, in which a GNER train carrying 150 passengers came off the tracks as it left London for Glasgow. Jarvis admitted a rail was missing because of an employee mistake.

A joint inquiry by Network Rail and Jarvis will this week publish findings which criticise a failure of communication between the two companies.

Industry sources say the two firms relied on a “verbal agreement” to carry out overnight maintenance to the track, rather than keeping detailed records. The points ought to have been disabled after Jarvis’s work but Network Rail’s signallers seemed unaware of the issue.

A rail was missing? A verbal agreement? Sometimes it is hard to believe that this is the same country that once ruled India.