Monday, 28 July 2014

Regional TV Adverts of the 70s and 80s

Some hilarious comments about regional TV ads from TV Cream that I've resurrected - unfortunately they no longer appear on their own web site. It doesn't sound funny, I'll admit but wait till you read them...

Friday, 4 July 2014 - review

I've used Fastmail ( for nearly ten years as my main email provider and in that time my uses and needs have changed. They have probably changed more in the last couple of years and now Calendar and Contacts have become more important, particularly in syncing to other devices and storing them online rather than locally. For years I used Palm Desktop (showing my age) and things like Nokia Desktop that allowed local sync via Bluetooth between Outlook data and a S60 phone.

All that's changed and now things like ActiveSync and CardDav/CalDav have become the most popular ways of device sync. For sometime I've been using Google for Contacts/Calendar and Gmail (forwarding my Fastmail account to them) and generally its been a good experience. Unfortunately I am a little troubled by Google having so much personal data on me; I don't mind for a Blog like this one as all the data is effectively public by default. But private data is another issue.

This is where things get more difficult; trying to find a good Email/Calendar/Contacts provider that isn't Microsoft Exchange based is not that easy. My reasons for not wanting Exchange are quite complicated and really not worth going into. As much as I've also had excellent service from Fastmail (and I have no intention of leaving them) they do seem to be struggling with updating themselves to be more than just a provider of IMAP email. Currently they do have a calendar but this is only a few weeks old at this point (July 2014) having just been released.

Ideally I would like both ActiveSync and CardDav/CalDav as well as IMAP and a good web interface. Surprisingly few fit the bill. I finally decided to try as a provider for these services. The sign up was easy and I haven't read any negative comments about them. On the whole I was quite impressed. Once I was signed up, I did find some critical problems that were show-stoppers for me:

No CardDav/CalDav:

As far as I can see there is no CardDav/CalDav. This is pretty much a show-stopper there and then. I need CardDav/CalDav for local clients like eM Client and even Windows Mail on Windows 8.1. I also like it as a means to sync iOS and to sync with Memotoo, etc. They do offer ActiveSync that Windows 8.1 can also use for a local client (and possibly eM Client) but without the means of synchronising a local client this was a dead-stop.

Alias Support:

The support for aliasing email addresses requires a ticket to be created - in Fastmail (and just about every other provider) makes this just an option in account setup and although this is something you do irregularly, this was also a big problem for me. This should be a user-changed setting.

Poor Identity Support

At Fastmail you can almost set up any alias joe@fastmail.invalid and when mail is sent it will go as this identity with no hint as to the underlying login ID. I find exposing my login name to be a bad idea and sending this with an email as a email address to be just asking for trouble.

No Two Factor Authentication

Two factor authentication is becoming a way of life, especially for email accounts. Email accounts are frequently used as a means of resetting passwords on sites and establishing your identity so protecting them as securely as possible is just common sense.


With better documentation and more detailed pre-sales information I wouldn't have signed up with as a provider. This isn't actually a criticism of them, I just would have known up front that features I require weren't there and it would have saved everyone time and effort. In fairness to them, their general set up is excellent and the price very fair; with a few additional features noted above I'd be more than happy to go back to them as they are a very complete provider of email and calendar/contacts.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

"Poorest 40% spend more than they earn"

Another damning indictment of Britain as "UK's richest can save £18,680 a year as poorest 40% spend more than they earn." In truth it was ever thus; for decades the poorest have spent far more than their earnings; in years gone by it was the pawnbroker (the tales of Dad's suit going on Friday night for a loan and coming out again Monday morning are typical) through the rise of doorstep lenders in the 1980s and now for the payday lenders, cash for gold businesses and even selling their clothes by the kilo. Someone, somewhere has always been squeezing money from the poor for decades.

But it's clear the gap is getting wider as it's always the poor who carry higher hidden costs than anyone else; they'll pay more for pay as you go mobile phones, prepay credit cards and certainly prepay electricity and gas. The better off meanwhile are having a blast: their better credit ratings get effective discounts on contract mobile phones and cheaper rates for electricity and gas, no prepayment surcharge and even discounts for paying via direct debit. The better off are also more likely to buy on the Internet getting cheaper goods and services, they've got the money, the methods of payment and methods of access to better deals. It is expensive to be poor.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Victory for the Isolationists

If you can resist the hyperbole about a political “earthquake” there can be no doubt that Ukip have scored a major victory and that across the European elections the same result has been mirrored. It presents a major challenge to conventional right-wing parties like the Tories and for the left it has echoes of Michael Foot’s defeat in 1983 where the public seem to swing quite severely to the right; although as an irony Foot’s Labour Party of the time was in favour of withdrawing from what was the EEC.

30+ years of professional politicians have opened up a chasm become electors and elected; people do not feel represented and feel managed rather than listened to. As apathy reaches increasingly alarming levels it seems that the public is ready to listen to the kind of arguments that 15 or 20 years ago would have been laughable. Europe looks like its is teetering on the brink of escalating more and more extreme views to counteract what is ultimately a democratic deficit. As always electors swarm around ridiculous simplicities as the answer to all their problems, as if their problems always exist in a vacuum and can be solved on the basis alone. No one it seems ever stops to consider what the unintended consequences of these actions will be.

In a recent interview the actor James McAvoy made an excellent observation (and I may be paraphrasing so apologies in advance) that if you vote for something like Scottish independence, do it because you believe in independence and not because you think your life will be better. The vote is only one question: do you want to independent? And that is the fundamental question of all isolationists. Ukip are ultimately a single issue party: in or out of Europe? If you want to vote for them, fine, but don’t expect the UK to be a land of milk and honey if we leave.

I don’t know of any country that has had a isolationist policy that was worked; sooner or later every country realises it can’t hold the reins of nationalism too tight without strangling the body. The more fearsome nationalism/isolationism becomes the faster that country becomes distressed. The idea that the destiny and the decision making of your country can be at the sole discretion of national parliaments has been dead for centuries and is absolutely extinct in the 21st century. Our destinies are more intricately tied up in global oil and gas prices, wheat and soya production that they ever are with individual politicians. The weakness of single countries has been thee fundamental spur to the growth of trading blocs, the BRIC countries, NAFTA and the EC amongst many.

This global interdependence has seen national sovereignty give way to group membership, to be a member of a certain “club” it’s been the loss of some sovereignty that’s been the price of membership. At the minute there is no viable alternative for the UK than EC membership.

English nationalists/isolationists peddle the same fantasy that outside the EU will be able to trade with Europe on better terms. It is absurd to imagine that if the UK repeals the Treaty of Rome and all the underlying legislation Britain will be able to trade with Europe equitably. All the red tape of decades gone by will return, there will be no access to the single market, there could be customs duties and customs charges in every EU member state. The EU might decide it might only want to trade with the UK in Euros. What imperative with Europe have to trade with Britain in anything other than the terms it stipulates? British workers in EU states may lose their rights to reside there and vice versa. Given that the EC will be much larger and richer than the UK how will we deal with them at an economic level. Will changes at this fundamental level jeopardise all the European owned factories and businesses in the UK? Or do we give these certain businesses protections from intra-Europe trading that we don’t give to private citizens thus reinventing the original electors complaint about privilege for the powerful?

And of course once we do end our membership of the EU and with it the right to live in other countries of the EU, we do have sufficient housing and jobs for the nearly two million Britons who live in these countries who now have to come home?

I personally believe that Scottish Independence is not altogether dissimilar, though the final divorce will be messier still; in the same way an Independent UK will be at the mercy of the EU, Scotland’s 5 million citizens will be at the receiving end of the UKs 55 million remaining. It’s a pipe dream to think your much smaller country will not be massively chided by its bigger brother but you’re at an even larger disadvantage as you no longer have any voice South of the border and being outside of the EU could mean an extremely unpleasant post-Independence hangover.

There is nothing inevitable about EU membership; for one it would probably take many years and the UK could exercise its veto to Scottish membership. Being in Europe but not being able to trade on other same terms as the other countries is the same disaster British isolationists are walking in to. Politicians on either side of the border can take all the gambles with our lives but none of the risk which makes them inherently dangerous. This is why Mark Thomas among others have suggested political manifestos should be legally binding and I agree.

An additionally huge problem to think about is if independence fails in the sense Britain leaves the EU or Scotland leaves the UK any attempt to return to these groups could be difficult and/or impossible. You can’t even begin to imagine the kind of punitive terms that would be demanded by either Brussels or Westminster in such a circumstance.

There is no doubt there is a lot wrong with both Westminster and EU politics and to this extent isolationists do have some points however their remedy is to let the patient die rather than save it. Isolationists and nationalists do not have history on their side as they are often unable to define themselves in any other terms.

Friday, 16 May 2014

"Self-employment" accounts for 80% of the increase in employment


Now this is an interesting one: for decades self-employment, from my own parochial point of view, has generally meant it's something better than unemployment or the dole for an awful lot of people. It kind of becomes peoples' Plan B when they finally exhaust all other options though probably somewhat less comedically than Adrian Mole's Dad when he was churning out spice racks.

Although these statistics/facts show how we are today they go an awfully long way to explaining the self-employment industry since the early 1980s. Of course I'm not saying that self-employment is a dead-end for everyone but the fact remains that an awful lot of people turn to it because they've ran out of other options. It seems to me that there's a large minority of people get talked into some pretty dismal business ideas that either lead to an absolute dead-end, low wages, financial ruin or all three. People at the more desperate end of the employment ladder ultimately have the most to lose.

Ultimately there is limited demand for mobile hairdressers/beauticians, niche retailing, pet groomers and the like. The more highly skilled jobs like tradesmen, electricians, construction and the like are the more obvious sources of more secure self-employed work but even in this the general satisfaction of self-employment seems to be pretty low with up to 28% saying that they'd prefer to be employees rather than self-employed. If more than a quarter are saying then self-employment is approaching something of a crisis with many who are working themselves facing a 1 in 3 chance of business failure within three years (in fact an article on Forbes but business failure at 80% within 18 months).

One of the key issues is that it's been found that the self-employed can earn 40% less than equivalent employees and work long hours which doesn't take a genius to work out how this will eventually turn into a death-spiral. With the general entry costs of many self-employed jobs being so low and an almost inexhaustible supply of people to fill them you can very easily end up having too many people chasing too little work with the one who will work for the least winning, until they are financially and literally exhausted and then being replaced by new entrants to the same line of work. This is when a market becomes too competitive and is a bloodbath for all concerned.

There is a case for saying that a lot of self-employment is nothing but a pipe-dream and there are too many losers with too much to lose being thrown into the mixer. Self-employment probably isn't the best choice for many people, however tempting it looks politically to use self-employment to massage the unemployment statistics (i.e. just because someone is registered as self-employment doesn't mean they're any better off). It's clear there's been an enormous slump in the value of self-employed income, averaging out at something like £11,400, bring it to less than minimum wage on a 40 hour week. Although it has been a topic of dispute that at what point does your income make you a net contributor, it has been suggested that this threshold is at or about £27,000 making many self-employed jobs a negative contributor, borne out be recent research showing that "The total amount of self -employed workers' income as a proportion of GDP has also tumbled from almost 11% to nearer 8.5% of GDP, despite a rise in the number of people in the sector."

Outdoor Equipment Retailing

I've been a amateur observer of outdoor equipment retailing in one form or another for 25 years on and off. Like many areas of retail this has seen enormous numbers of fads and fashions over the last two decades and today there seems to be a large degree of consolidation as well as an increasing amount of non-specialist retailers moving into the sector, which is somewhat analogous to supermarkets selling books and CDs which started many years ago.

In my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne outdoor retailing looks like it's on its last legs, at least in this region. Nearly all the independent retailers have closed, and what's left are local and national chains. Many of the old, well known names have gone: Blacks, Tiso, Wildtrak, Wilderness Ways/Nevissport, Millets and Freemans (and no doubt others I can no longer recall). Although some may not lament the passing of some of these names it is certainly indicative of how outdoor retailing has been changing over the years.

I think all of them to some degree, were wrong footed by Internet retailing, some through lack of investment and ultimately all through lack of customers which reflects the economic stagnation of the region as far as I can see. the economic factor seems the most pertinent rather than lack of participation as it is estimated that 9.1 million people walk for recreation. It isn't terribly obvious how Internet retailing injured these businesses, at least in Newcastle, but it is very likely they did. Most purchasers of outdoor kit almost certainly want to inspect it at first (I do), particularly with clothing and footwear. These can leave these businesses very vulnerable to both the try-on-and-by-elsewhere customer and that many ancillary items can be had from the Internet for almost certainly less money; behemoths like Amazon can offer the same kit for less money or offer a better online experience or allow you to choose from multiple sellers on the same site. Competing at this level from my own observations is a complete non-starter.

It has long been said that great service and expert advice can save some retailers from being devoured by Internet retailing. Although it's been said so many times it is almost a truism, I don't actually believe this is as profound a reality as some think. For one, customers can get as many varied opinions and advice from the Internet as they could ever want, certainly more than from retailers. Let's face it: quite a bit of the service I've had from the stores that no longer trade was far from stellar; some of the staff never seemed that particularly interested and when I've had problems with kit their efforts at resolution were occasionally pretty appalling. Like all truisms, saving a business by "offering great service and expert advice" will only work if it's actually true. It sounds obvious but it isn't. So many failed retailers were ultimately undone by their staff through inexperience, low motivation, having the wrong staff or recruiting and paying at the wrong level.

It's pretty clear that in the long term, specialised outdoor retailing (in Newcastle at least) has no real future. Ten or fifteen years ago Newcastle was served by seven or more Outdoor specialists, today there is really only three; Cotswold Outdoor on Northumberland Street, LD Mountain Centre and Start Outdoors, the latter seems to be an off-shoot of "Start Fitness" sport retailers. Cotswold Outdoor is a huge store with a big range however it has never seemed particularly busy to me. Northumberland Street in Newcastle upon Tyne is reckoned to be the most expensive retail street outside London which I don't think bodes particularly well. LD Mountain Centre, the original home of Berghaus, probably has sufficient momentum through its history to remain in business. Start Outdoor seems more an unknown quantity to me at this stage.

They're all being clobbered however by all the non-specialists; you can walk into John Lewis or Fenwicks and buy The North Face or Berghaus off the shelf; Sports Direct sells a large range of Karrimor kit and even places like TK Maxx have had numerous pieces of outdoor kit from The North Face, Berghaus, Patagonia, Merill, etc. A huge amount of outdoor kit particularly clothing, footwear and rucksacks has slid from specialist into non-specialist retailing. Outdoor kit became mainstream casualwear at least 20 years ago and perhaps from this point the days of specialist retailers were numbered and it may it's more of a surprise they've lasted this long.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Made it to the end of Battlestar Galactica (Part 1)

I started watching the reimagined Battlestar Galactica in July 2013 on a whim on Netflix; I’d seen the odd episode on TV (don’t ask me which) quite a few years ago and remembering some of the comments on the conclusion of the series I decided to take on watching the entire thing.

It’s been quite an epic journey and a much more satisfying saga than the sub-Star Wars nonsense of the original. Without a single exception the actors and scripts were superior in everyway. The original was a seriously derivative bit of work with some diabolical ideas in it but the central theme of humanity being hunted to extinction has resonance and written during mankind’s genocidal century was clearly a reflection of our own history, whether conscious or not.

But like so many programmes with such a big idea at it’s heart, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica also ended up with many deficiencies. It’s like being a juggler with too many balls in the air and too many questions it raises and potentially forgets to answer. Writers seem to get lost in the grain of an idea and then struggle to work their way back out of their own narrative maze. Battlestar had many such mazes and unanswered questions that after 70-odd episodes really do tax your ability to suspend belief beyond tolerance.

As a fairly uncertain atheist I have to admit finding many of the repeated religious threads not entirely convincing; if man really does make God in his own image then the Cylons were clearly in for one hell of a disappointment. If Battlestar genuinely is science fiction then religious explanations just don’t work for me. Not that I believe it to be literally incredible as it seems highly improbably life across the galaxy will be anything like us but because it is simply bad story telling. Humans love narratives, even if we don’t have one, we’ll make one up. We’re literally born making up stories. We’re told stories from infancy and we develop incredibly sophisticated mechanisms to identify, digest and understand stories.

Our developed senses for what makes good stories turns into an Achilles Heal for writers and audience alike. Developing a central premise [humans fleeing destruction] is a much simpler structure to set up than explaining how they escaped it. We’ve been telling stories of the threat from without for decades from the earliest days of science fiction; HG Wells set the bar almost impossibly high in 1898 with The War of the Worlds, on one hand it was a precursor to Battlestar, Wells’ wrote a tale of the destruction of decadent and complacent Victorian society with a parallel with the fall of the Twelve Colonies in Battlestar. Wells had a secret weapon for his story though, a weapon so powerful it really made the story a seminal work: he had an ending. Wells worked out an ending that was fundamentally satisfying even if viewed in atheistic or theological terms.

Loose Threads

Battlestar started to come apart because it ended up with too many plot threads that either it couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. A rational explanation for certain plot points is essential if the story is to have narrative credibility. So many different elements ran through the show like fractures. If you introduce any question or threads I would argue that as a story teller you have an obligation to your audience to answer it in a satisfactory. Doing otherwise tends to look like you’ve bit off more than you can chew or you really don’t know how things are meant to be resolved.

You really can’t start a show off with a premise which says the Cylons are destroying mankind because of a preordained “plan” without going into detail of what that is. On the surface their plan is the genocide of all humans which isn’t really much of a plan and so self-evident it’s not really much of a reveal. So, what was their plan? After 70+ episodes do we really know? Was it anything more nuanced that hunting man to extinction? If it wasn’t more philosophical than that than our bill of goods is looking a bit shoddy.

More to come…