Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Horses driving carts

Obviously commercial organisations are aiming to monetize their internet presence. However, it seems to be increasingly the case that they are more concerned with ad revenue than the experience of their users. Some of the stupidities ...

  • Mattel have a Scrabble game that connects to Facebook, and have aggressively chased off other companies that have produced games that are too similar. It is one of the most irritating Facebook apps. They have attached an advertising engine to it. For a long time, every time you played three moves, it would produce a black screen inviting you to buy their ad removal packages to avoid a seven second wait - in other words, it was advertising its own ad removal package.

    This pales into insignificance compared to the apps behaviour on a tablet. Here, particularly when playing against the computer, the same 30 second advert is generated pretty much between every turn, you can't exit from it, and when the advert ends, it shuts down the app.
  • AVG anti-virus have a well-established free antivirus, which aside from the fact that it kills performance of computers, does provide what seems like a pretty good level of protection. In Windows 10 it produces pop-ups, and today, it has started producing the same pop-up advert every few minutes.
  • The "click-bait" slideshows that you get to from social media, which sometimes suggest they have interesting content, now typically spread the text for one slide over three clicks - presumably to serve more ad views.
  • I remember reading a grumbly Guardian article a while ago about ads on the internet - whilst downloading animated adverts on the same page was grinding my browser to a halt.
  • One of the main suppliers of automated ads has this obsession with things that you have looked at or searched for. So you look for, say, Converse shoes on Amazon. Ta-dah! Every web page you look at for the next week has an advert for them. Now, think for a minute, Mr Ad Builder. The likelihood is that either 1) I bought the shoes or 2) I decided I didn't need to. That was a search I did two days ago - am I likely to want to do it again today?
These strategies are self-defeating. The reason Adblock gained traction was because of the increasing intrusiveness of internet advertising. If people find advertising intrusive and can't get round it, they will either block it or use different products - advertising on the internet drives people away more effectively than it promotes things.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Churchill and the EU

During the referendum campaign, I'm pretty sure I heard Churchill's name invoked on several occasions. I've just finished reading his Nobel Prize-winning history of the Second World War. There were a large number of interesting snippets in there, and it's well worth a read. I thought his thoughts towards the end of the last volume about his idea for a world order following the war were worth repeating.

I have always held the view that the foundation of a World Instrument [that is, a basis for organising international politics] should be sought on a regional basis. Most of the principal regions suggest themselves - the United States, United Europe, the British Commonwealth and Empire, the Soviet Union, South America. Others are more difficult at present to define - like the Asian group or groups, or the African group - but could be developed with study. But the object would be to have many issues of fierce local controversy thrashed out in the Regional Council, which would then send three or four representatives to the Supreme Body, choosing men of the greatest eminence. This would make a Supreme Group of thirty or forty world statesmen, each responsible not only for representing their own region, but for dealing with world causes, and primarily the prevention of war. What we have now [1953] is not effective for that outstanding purpose. The summoning of all nations, great and small, powerful or powerless, on even terms to the central body may be compared to the organisation of an army without any division between the High Command and the divisional and brigade commanders. All are invited to the headquarters. Babel, tempered by skilful lobbying, is all that has resulted up to the present. But we must persevere. (From Triumph and Tragedy, Chapter XXXVI)  
Lots of bits and pieces in there. But with regard to Europe, we can see that Churchill had in mind a "United Europe" - but one which did not include the UK. We can also see that the principal function of international politics, as far as he was concerned, was the prevention of war, rather than economic. This was obviously as the Cold War got under way, and on the back of forty pretty disastrous years for Europe.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Modern ticket touting

I heard a news article, probably on Radio 4, about the problem of ticket buying and reselling. Businesses use deceptive means (credit cards in false names, multiple addresses) to buy large numbers of tickets for shows when the sale opens, and then resell them at significant markups. The big ticket companies, like Ticketmaster, have a ticket resale wing, and this is used - much more anonymous than eBay with its rating system. Now, there will always be a reason why people need to resell tickets. Someone in a group might get sick, for example. People might decide they want to go for a date that's released later on. But that doesn't seem to be what's dominant.

We had the opportunity to see it in action today. We were tasked to try and secure a couple of
tickets in the presale for a Twenty One Pilots gig at Alexandra Palace on 11th November this year. Literally within minutes of the presale opening, possibly less than a minute, no tickets were available.

By 9.30, that is, just half an hour after the presale OPENED, there were over 270 tickets being resold on Getmein, the Ticketmaster resale website. The markup was £10 or more per ticket. The tickets on Getmein were all being sold at around the same price - presumably this is a fairly mature tour, so by now the people buying to resell have a pretty good feel for what the market will bear. Valuable societal skills right there.

Some bands and artists have already reacted against this. There are means of regulating it which would make it much less desirable to touts. For example, Getmein could limit ticket resale price to the purchase price - why should someone reselling tickets make a profit from the transaction? Who does that benefit? Or, especially given that the tickets aren't normally sent out until a few weeks before the gig, they could offer resales only a week before the tickets would be sent. The trouble is, at the moment, Getmein/Ticketmaster makes even more money this way - they end up getting commission for selling the same ticket more than once!!

Just to let you know, if this is how you run a business and you happen to be reading this, then you're a spiv and a parasite. You are making money off other people's work, whilst adding no value of your own and just ripping other people off.

Monday, June 06, 2016

A methodology for analysis of pop lyrics - problems

Song lyrics are typically divided into blocks of text, with the blocks corresponding to musical sections of the song – verses, chorus, bridge. These typically consist of more than one sentence, and thus are analogous in rank scale to paragraphs. The first, and possibly most obvious, problem, in analysing song lyrics is repetition - the repetitiveness is one of the distinctive features of song lyrics. It has the effect of significantly increasing the word count without adding to the semantic content. It also has the potential to distort and bias word frequencies, particularly in the case of the most repetitive songs. Previous researchers have adopted different approaches to the issue of repetition. Kreyer andMukherjee chose to keep them all; Petrie,Pennebaker and Sivertsen chose to eliminate the third and subsequent occurences. (Incidentally, that last one is a really interesting paper - "A linguistic analysis of the Beatles".) In my project, I downloaded lyrics from lyric databases, and the files I downloaded generally included all repetitions, as they are written in such a way as to permit people to follow the song from beginning to end. However, I decided to produce a corpus in which I deleted blocks of text that were repeated unchanged in their entirety. Where there were changes, both blocks were kept. The effect of this was to reduce the average number of words per "song" from 343 to 220, a reduction of 35%. The justification that underlay this was that I was interested in exploring linguistic features. Having noted the scale of the repetition, there was little need to explore it further.

A second issue is that the language used in song lyrics often diverges from "standard English", both in terms of word choice and grammar. This means that it's necessary to come to a decision about how to write it down. Should I write "ooh" or "oooh" or "oooooooooh"? Should I stick with the official version, and end up with a range of different versions of a word that is functionally the same? I didn't come to an answer in my original work. I think the best approach is to attempt to standardise as far as possible, but record the extent to which changes were made.

Another issue is that of "definitiveness". The definitive versions of lyrics are likely to be found either on a band's website, or if not electronically, on an album sleeve notes. It is much more common for bands to make their lyrics available in this way than it was thirty years ago. The downside of this is that it takes substantially more research to get hold of the lyrics, compared with raiding a lyrics database. However, most such databases are "widely collaborative" enterprises, with people contributing lyrics as they see fit, which may or may not be subsequently corrected by other people if they contain errors. For my project, I used a specific lyric database as a starting point. However, if the lyrics were unconvincing, I would then check it against other databases or the band's own website if one was available.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A methodology for analysis of pop lyrics - justification

During my OU degree, I chose to do short project looking at the linguistic characteristics of pop lyrics. I felt this was worthy of further study, and would like to come back to it. As part of the prologue of this process, it's important to work out how exactly the language is going to be analysed. I've extracted and edited what follows from the short paper that I wrote.

Music is a form of artistic expression that is produced in the context of a particular culture. "Pop music" doesn't have a single clear definition, but is typically represented by music made available as "singles" – single-track records, or individual downloads. For many years, it has reflected and also helped to define a certain strand of particularly Western culture.

Despite the cultural significance of song lyrics, they have largely remained uninvestigated from a corpus linguistic perspective. According to Kreyer and Mukherjee, they have "not been included in any of the standard reference corpora". Some preliminary investigations have been carried out, but little attempt has apparently been made to describe the linguistic characteristics of pop lyrics. Such an analysis would provide a reference point for considering the location of individual lyrics within the genre. Given the close relationship between pop lyrics and culture, it is possible that song lyrics might provide a proxy for measuring cultural phenomena. This was an approach taken by DeWall et al.

Linguistically, pop music lyrics have characteristics that are different from other forms of language use. The medium itself is focussed on music, particularly rhythm, melody and form, and the lyrics might be considered subordinate to this. Individual song lyrics tend to be highly repetitive and relatively short. Although songs are written, rehearsed and edited, which ought to result in texts characteristic of written modes, the choice of language is often colloquial, stylised and limited – this being more typical of spontaneous forms of language use, such as conversation. The choice of themes is conventionally narrow. However, song lyrics are widely quoted beyond the context of their song, frequently have powerful emotional resonance, and consequently have a cultural weight in sections of society that few other forms of discourse manage. This cultural significance makes song lyrics worthy of investigation.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The "feel" of the Narnia books

I've given links on this page to two books that Michael Ward has written, and a DVD based on them. He has a thesis, for those who aren't familiar with it, concerning  the seven Narnia books. Note that it does not relate to the films or the BBC productions - if that's your only exposure to C.S.Lewis, then you need to do some more reading before you will understand this post! The Narnia Code DVD was broadcast on network television, and became one of the most explicitly Christian things I've seen on TV. The book of the same name is accessible to children whereas Planet Narnia is quite a challenging read. However, both books effectively engage in literary analysis in an incredibly satisfying way - if your only experience is of deadly hours spent in GCSE English classes, then reading these books is an eye-opening experience. Good analysis like this doesn't kill the books, it makes them come even more alive. (That's what Bible teaching should do as well!)

His thesis is that the seven books each use one of the medieval planets to create the distinctive "atmosphere" of the book. The medieval planets are the sun and moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The medieval view of the planets was complex - they were bound up with the characters of the gods they were named after and different aspects of the world that characterised those gods. Lewis believed that myth expressed an underlying deeper "truth", was quite fearless in co-opting this medieval framework as being representative of an underlying Christian reality. To give a brief examples of that, The Horse and His Boy is the book which relates to Mercury. It is dominated by rivers, carrying messages and twins. The Silver Chair is Luna, the moon. So there is confusion, ambiguity, a sense of "descent", madness and ... silver, the moon's metal! You can guess which planet the warlike Prince Caspian and the creative Magician's Nephew represent.

Ward's understanding of what Lewis was trying to achieve is pretty convincing, and is now apparently widely accepted. What interested me about it was the extent to which people's preferences between the Narnia books were shaped by the mood of the book, so I asked briefly which of the books people preferred and why. I suspect that the "mood" of a book does indeed have some impact on people's preferences, even if they read and enjoyed all seven books.

For what it's worth, I think that my preferred book as far as mood was concerned was The Silver Chair, even though I suspect it is one of the seven that I actually read the least. If you want to learn more about how Ward makes and defends his thesis, and how that actually works itself out, you'll have to go to the books, or at least the DVD. But once you've got an idea of how it works, go back to the books and read them again!

Feel free to comment on which of the Narnia books you liked and why. It would be interesting to see how often "mood" or "atmosphere" crops up.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A just war

The BBC has a web page which summarises what a just war is. It is so concise and simple that it's hard not to quote the whole thing, although it does leave quite a few questions unanswered - what is a "just cause"? What are "good intentions"?

The UK government is debating launching air strikes against Syria. To me, if this is to be considered engagement in war, I strongly suspect that it fails to meet the fifth criterion given on the BBC page:
  • There must be a reasonable chance of success
How do you measure "a reasonable chance of success"? What even are the success criteria?

Two of the other criteria are also matters for debate:
  • The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.
  • All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
 And two of the remaining three require proper articulation:
  • The war must be for a just cause.
  • The intention behind the war must be good.
Even assuming that the idea of a just cause is not ambiguous, what is the cause for which we would be fighting? And what is the intention, and can we at least agree that it is a good one?

Let's assume that these matters can all be addressed. We then have to look at the conduct of the war. Can we be confident that "innocent people and non-combatants" will not be harmed, if our chosen way of conducting it is by bombing? If not, then the war ceases to be just.

People have said, "what should we do, then?" Personally, I think the cause is just - namely, to attempt to protect the people who are there. But the means of fighting is wrong. If it is agreed that the cause is just, then it is hard to argue with the logic that says we actually ought to be fighting there. This cause is less ambiguous than seeking regime change in another sovereign state, regardless of how much you have come to dislike it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Who is a "first-time buyer"?

The government, in its spending review, is promising amongst other things:
  • £2.3bn paid directly to developers to build so-called "starter homes", aimed at first-time buyers, who will get a 20% discount on prices up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 elsewhere
 I want to talk briefly about those "first-time buyers", who will be benefiting from the government opening its purse strings. The phrase is a loaded one - in the same way that when you think of a pensioner, you think of this:

rather than this:
What you probably think of is a young couple, maybe starting a family, one in a worthy job - maybe a nurse or teacher or policeman a year or two into their career.

That's all wrong.

Take that £450,000 maximum pricetag for London. The 20% discount reduces this to £360,000. To afford to buy a property, these first time buyers need cash of around £40,000 for deposit and fees, and an income of around £90,000. So, let's assume this is a couple. Both are close to the higher tax threshold, which means they definitely aren't classroom teachers (unless several years into leadership) or policeman (unless close to inspector level) or nurses (below band 8).

A couple of things follow from this.

  • If this is where you need to be professionally to be a first time buyer, then something is wrong with the system.
  • Are these really the most needy in society, the people who the government should be directing billions of pounds to helping out? 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Expo 2015

There's still time to go.

It's in Milan, and runs till October 31. The theme is "Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life". We spent a couple of days there in July, and here are some reflections on it.

I went to my first Expo in Vancouver in 1986, travelling on my own. Then I took my family to Hannover in 2000, and then went back there for another short day later on in the summer. I've been wanting to get back to an Expo ever since. Milan seemed like a good opportunity, and it was just a matter of finding a block of days when we could get there.

It's hard to describe what it actually is. I think it has its roots in such things as the Great Exhibition. It is dominated by international pavilions - we think around 120 countries were represented there. These vary from 5x5 metre rooms with posters and (usually) a few products to buy to sophisticated walk-through multimedia attractions, with restaurants and arts venues. There are also commercial pavilions, parades and entertainments both lowbrow and highbrow. I think the name of Epcot in Disneyworld is no coincidence; it is a kind of theme-park, "Disney" version of Expo.

It has grown! In 2000, we pretty much broke the back of Expo in one day - with two children who weren't fluent walkers. We spent two pretty long days there this time, and only got around it by skipping most commercial pavilions and ones with queues, so I think a fifth had gone unseen. I suppose, given that the theme was Feeding the Planet, it is not surprising that many of the pavilions should showcase food and drink. We ate in Azerbaijan, Brazil and Chile, and bought a drink in Laos.

I was apprehensive about the heat of Milan in July, especially as Expo involves a lot of walking. As it turned out, it was me who came closest to succumbing to the heat, needing a fairly long mid-afternoon break on the second day, despite drinking plenty. The organisers have given consideration to the impact of heat. The heart of Expo is a covered boulevard around 1500 metres long. But you can't really avoid a lot of walking.

There are ethical issues raised by Expo. There were riots when it opened; it feels like an expression of globalisation. And it's very much the case that the countries and corporations present themselves as they wish to be seen. But on the other hand, there aren't many places in the world where you can get a glimpse of so many nations on their own terms at one go (North Korea, Sudan, Yemen, Laos, Ethiopia, Brunei...), and the subject matter does invite the countries to consider what they are doing about food security and sustainability, and the visitors to critically engage with these questions. I'd like to get back there and see more - failing that, the next Universal Expo is in Dubai in 2020 (though there's a smaller, specialised Expo in Astana in 2017 - just 100 countries represented ...)

Thursday, July 02, 2015

My blog list

There is no rhyme or reason to the blogs I've got links to. Just whatever catches my eye. Don't feel the need to reciprocate - you ain't gonna get much link traffic from me anyway. Conversely, you probably will have to comment somewhere on here if you'd rather I wasn't linking to you.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Management consultancy report

This is the best-value management consultancy report ever - it's free, and it only takes five minutes to read. Not only does it encapsulate the key points of every management consultancy report ever written in Part A, but in Part B there is some really useful stuff - way more useful than you will usually find in such a report. 

Part A – Generic insights that sound profound but are actually really obvious
  • Some of your employees are happy. Some of them aren't. For the most part, if you pretend to be listening to them, they will keep quiet.
  • Costs, costs, costs!
  • If you've not been making money, you need to keep the pressure on costs.
  • If you've been making money, that's good, but you need to keep the pressure on costs because the competition is getting better.
  • Errrr ….
  • That's it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I did my English Literature O-level in 1984, and almost inevitably we ended up studying George Orwell's book. It portrays a totalitarian, controlling society, echoing and developing what Orwell saw taking place in Soviet Russia at the time he wrote it (1948).

For much of the thirty years since, I've been under the influence of Postman, who in Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that Aldous Huxley's near contemporary vision of the future, Brave New World, was more characteristic of our world. In Huxley's world, nobody burns books - because nobody reads them anyway. Incidentally, I'm interested to see that Steven Spielberg is working on a TV series adaptation of Huxley's book.

However, in the last few months, the thought has been growing that I ought to read Orwell's book again. Too many things that I've noticed about our culture have echoes of Airstrip One - and, more disturbingly, the shifts in culture are ones that society has blithely accepted, not ones that have been imposed.

The idea that the government should have the right to listen into everyone's phone conversations, read everyone's emails, know everything about their web browsing behaviour, is the latest and most relevant example. This private information should simply not be the domain of government - but not only is the party of government intent on doing this (it was reported as though Theresa May was almost gleeful that the Conservatives now had an overall majority - I have to say she reminds me strongly of Dolores Umbridge ...) but there are plenty of people who think that this has to be done for the sake of security.

More than the simple Big Brother aspect, there's also the thought control side of it, and here the risk to freedom comes from the side of liberalism. If we trace the path of marriage equality, what it has involved is a newspeak-style redefinition of words, followed by the assertion that people not only have to accept this, but participate in it - a business is not permitted to exercise freedom of conscience in running how it wishes to, but may be discriminating if it refuses to do something on grounds of conscience. The law insists: "You have to publicly agree with me, no public space is permitted for dissent." The common argument voiced is: this is analogous to a company discriminating on grounds of race, and therefore wrong. To which there are several responses. The first is to ask whether this is a fair analogy (I'd argue not, the bakers were not refusing to serve them, and would have made and decorated a cake for them). The second is to ask that regardless of whether it is right, doesn't the owner of the business have the freedom to choose how to run his business? If society regards his views as offensive, they will stop buying from him.

What is most scary to me about all this is that people have simply handed over their freedoms, apparently completely unaware of what they are giving up. A business not free to run as it chooses. People prepared to allow the government to supervise all their electronic communication. Yep, that's okay.

Francis Schaeffer saw it coming, of course. He argues, in How Should We Then Live? 

History indicates that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is obviously even greater when the two main values so many people have are personal peace and affluence.
 In other words, the desire to have the feeling of getting richer and remaining secure are the two drivers - people will give up any freedoms to maintain those two things. It's pretty disturbing for those of us who thought that the end of the Soviets would see the end of the push towards the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A quick quiz

1. How many votes does it take to elect an MP? 
a) 26,000
b) 299,000
c) 4,000,000
2. What percentage of voters had their vote effectively ignored in the general election?
a) 32%
b) 49.9999%
c) 63%
3. What percentage of MPs would have been different if a PR system had been used?
a) 4%
b) 14%
c) 24%
Ultimately, it would be incorrect to say the system is undemocratic. But it is certainly not representative. Answers below ...

Saturday, May 09, 2015

What was wrong with polling methodology?

A lot of effort goes into market research, and attempting to ensure that opinion polls are balanced and representative. That being so, let's compare the BBC "Poll of Polls"(which gathers together the results of a basket of opinion polls) with the final percentages who voted:

PartyPoll of polls/%Actually polled/%Difference (nearest 0.5)/%
Labour 33 30.4 -1.5
UKIP 14 12.6 -1.5
LibDem 8 7.9 0
Green 6 3.8 -2

An interesting phenomenon was that the BBC exit poll was very, very close to being dead on - certainly it picked up the fact that the Liberals were going to be hammered, SNP were going to sweep the board in Scotland and the Conservatives would have roughly an overall majority, whereas modelling on the basis of the Poll of Polls pretty consistently came back with a hung parliament and the LibDems not doing so badly. It's hard to overstate the sense of shock and disbelief that the exit poll created, but as a reminder ... Paddy Ashdown said he'd eat his hat.

The difference between the advance opinion polls and the actual outcome was enough to totally change the shape of the parliament. So how come this big discrepancy?

It may be that people's statement of intentions in opinion polls was not reliable. Or it may be that the undecideds didn't distribute their votes evenly when it actually came to casting a vote. My hunch, however, is that there is a social phenomenon involved as well.

Let's hypothesise that there is a block of voters that the opinion polls don't reach, and that the voting intentions of this block of voters aren't congruent with those of the opinion polls. Is it possible to come up with a size for this block and a distribution of their voting intentions which, when you include these voters in with those people reached by the opinion polls, gives you a final distribution of votes that matches what was seen? The answer to that is, yes. Suppose that the opinion polls are actually only able to reach 5/8 of voters, and the other 3/8 for whatever reason are invisible to the opinion pollsters. Then supposing that the distribution of the votes in this group is completely different from that of the 5/8...

PoP Actual share in election Share of invisible votes  ... results in this share 
Conservative 34 36.9 42 37.0
Labour 33 30.4 26 30.4
LibDem 8 7.9 8 8.0
UKIP 14 12.6 10 12.5
Green 6 3.8 0 3.8
Other 5 8.4 14 8.4
100 100 100 100.0
Invisible votes/%

This is a pretty contrived option, obviously - the idea that opinion pollsters are failing to reach 60% or more of the population is pretty implausible. But the principle is solid. To get to an invisible share of 60%, I worked on the biggest proportional drop - the Poll of Polls figure of 6% for Greens and the actual vote of 3.8%. Suppose instead that change of voting intentions on the day means that of the 6% of people who said reported in the PoP that they would vote for the Greens, only 5% actually did, the other 1% switching to "Other". We now only need a block of invisible voters that is half the size:

Poll of Polls Actual share in election Share of invisible votes ... results in this share
Con 34 36.9 47 37.0
Lab 33 30.4 21 30.2
Lib 8 7.9 8 8.0
UKIP 14 12.6 8 12.6
Green 5 3.8 0 3.8
other 6 8.4 16 8.3
100 100 100 100.0
Invisible votes/%
What becomes apparent is that the smaller the group of invisible voters is, the larger the proportion of them that vote for the Conservatives. And this does have a correspondence with an aspect of the real world. The more "conservative" - self-sufficient, independent and autonomous - someone is, the less likely they are to be involved in the rest of society. Their phone number is not accessible as they use the telephone preference service. They get their groceries and so on delivered, rather than going into town to get them. The choices of the Conservative consumer are more likely to result in them being invisible to any of the means that opinion pollsters have available at their disposal to ask for their opinion. Possibly they are also more private and reticent about sharing their views as well.

My hunch is that the size of this block of "invisible votes" is actually quite a lot smaller than 30%, but that there is a growing section of the community who behaves in this way, and who opinion poll organisations are failing to reach. This is just one of the factors on top of others which resulted in the discrepancy between opinion polls and the final outcome of the election. But I think that there may be a significant methodological issue here for opinion polling.