Friday, February 29, 2008

"Dear Economy", or "How to Win with Supply and Demand"

Dear Economy,

I must admit I don't really understand concerns over falling house prices, or why slowth in growth is referred to as "weakness". It's almost as if you are of the persuasion that unaffordability is better for your good self.

If this is, in fact, the case, then I suggest a couple of easy steps that will help buoy your bizarre and rather perverted sense of "success":


  1. Impersonate natural disasters through a variety of man-made means, such as the hiring of schoolchildren to throw endless numbers of large buckets of water through "vulnerable" (or "despised", if you like) towns and fields. The resulting damage will force prices of food and transport up (again better for your Good Self, if attitudes towards house prices are anything to go by), as well as result in increased spending through clear-up services and replacement goods. You may like to replace schoolchildren with qualified destroyers if this means more money is being spent.

  2. Clamp down on this thing called "innovation" (or, alternatively, "progress"). The problem is not that progress exists, but rather that there's just too much of it, and as such everyone is able to afford their own level of personalised futurism. (For example, little Timmy can spend less and have a great time with a Nintendo [tm] DS Lite [tm], while young, "prosperous" Ursula can splash out on a rip-roaring Sony [tm] Playstation [tm] 3 [tm].) Cutting back on innovation means cutting back on choice which, as we all know, leads to greater competition in the short term. As a result of this squabbling, people will generally be prepared to pay more - simple supply and demand.

  3. Gain governmental kudos by installing new on-shore wind farms, and new high-speed rail links between everywhere-that's-not-London. Of course, in order to do this, large numbers of houses will have to be knocked down in semi-urban areas, driving prices up in nearby urban centres. (Increase which will, of course, be reinforced by these locations' proximity to both high speed rail and sweet, green energy.) Environment, transport, and social cohesion, all boosted by one simple act of changing land use! I should be getting paid for this.

In short, Economy, the future is bright for you, no matter how much you screw it up. This is a moment to sit back and be proud of.

Yours sincerely,

Scribe.

P.S. It works for the art world, too. Are you sure your Good Self is actually in some kind of "danger", or is it just that the people at the bottom have run out of cash and stupidity simultaneously?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Iran's Gazeuros, rather than Oileuros

Anyone following the ongoing fuel/economy struggle should read this article at the Asia Times.

Executive Summary:


  • Iran has access to a lot of gas that it wants to extract quickly. (Exaggerated figures claim Iran will grow from providing 1% of the world's gas to 10% in the next 20 years.)

  • Washington pressure (annoyingly, the article is light on details here - I guess it mainly means sanctions) prevents European gas companies and banks from hooking up with Iran. This just leaves Russia's Gazprom, who are already supplying 25% of Western Europe's gas.

  • Russia and Iran want the gassy equivalent of OPEC to be formed.

  • Thus, oil in non-dollars isn't an urgency (although could be the second of a double whammy). Gas in non-dollars is the current focus.


The whole thing reminds me of Naked Lunch, for some reason. Lucid nightmares, strange bed-time practices, monstrous systems of psychopathic control and, most of all, addiction as a necessity for survival. But not for the addicted.

Where's My E-Haggling E-Market?

Ever feel like something's missing, even though the Internet has every combination known to iqmonkeykind? I think I realised what it is this morning.

Somewhere in between the great god eBay and the new hippy wave of paying what you want lies what, for me, really defines a marketplace: Haggling.

Head to one of these marketplaces of authenticity (that is, one without any gaudy seals of authenticity) - from overnight, sprawling Cairo labyrinths, to grey, Sunday-morning car boot sales - and you'll find the fastest, most personalised price negotiation system in existence. Get the right crowd, put on a friendly forehead, and you can even lubricate the haggling activity (or "ritual", as it is in many places) with tea, cakes, or some other vaguely cheap ingestible that still manages to let more social-ness creep into the transaction than could be wrung from the bodies of a thousand Disney Greeters.

In fact, I've always wondered what the economist's fascination with market forces was - the over-reliance on competition to bring prices down, Pareto's Equilibrium and, ultimately, an industry addicted to the psychology of marketing like a Big Issue seller taking opera lessons to sell his wares and secure his place in the big bad Profit Warnings Hostel. Surely haggling is altogether more efficient?

Think about it: individual consumers pay what they want to pay. This makes sense because everyone's idea of "affordability" is different. Three-and-a-half quid to the Queen is very different to three-and-a-half quid to a student at the end of the month, but a Double mushroom and blue cheese burger really doesn't stop and take this into account. By being able to offer goods to different people at relative prices, not only do more people buy the goods because affordability becomes relative, but also prices are more "elastic" (I think that's the right word - I mean, "react less to other changes") compared to inflation (which can be skewed by one bunch of people being very rich). So, in general, the poor can "afford" more, and sellers sell more as a result.

So where's my E-Haggle then? (Tea and cake aside.) A quick google throws up Mr. Haggle (clearly a pre-cursor - or post-cursor - to the greatest '80s7 film ever made), but good luck if you can find anything for offer on it, let alone worth a frenzied barter over.

Maybe this is where eBay was going when it gorged itself on Skype-cookies. Or maybe it's where they should be going. Skype is interesting here, as it forms the bridge (or jumps the shark, maybe) between automated selling, and community-driven marketplaces.

Yes, being able to sell stuff without being there is handy. But haggling is fun as well as profitable. Interaction with a Real Person (if such a thing exists these days) can be a good thing - not just from a la-de-da web2.0 social thing, but also in terms of the feedback it provides to sellers and buyers alike. Communication carries trust. Communication carries response, judgement, and suggestion. Communication is not just about numbers.

Personally, I think Etsy would be a great place to try out something like this. The tangible, individualised, and often unique nature of the items on offer would dovetail well with some form of haggling mechanism.

There are some intriguing issues that arise, of course. Do you let consumers know what other buyers paid, for instance? Could you integrate individualised haggling with more of an auction-house chatroom method? I suspect people would get accused of not offering people the lowest price, and the whole thing might implode under notions of equality. But I'm also surprised no-one has even attempted to see what can be done about these issues, or to see if a new form of haggling can emerge from an e-era of e-obscurity.

Come on Internet, don't fail me know.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Encounter

9am.

"Have you got 20p for a phone call? I'm drunk and I'm Russian. I must call my ship and tell them that I'm still alive."

The orange juice in the cup in his hand might or might not have had vodka in.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Putting the "Warn" into "Warner Bros"

Some phrases strike fear into the hearts and souls of the Gods' Gods themselves. Personally, any phrase that manages to link the words "Warner Bros", "live action", "fast-tracked" and "Akira" is clearly destined to beat Thor's Mum to death with her own rolling pin.

So oh goody yay hurrah and whizz.

Addendum: Fortunately, Hollywood seems to be moving away from comics and into board games. Following the success of Tim Curry in Clue, I can only hope that The Twisted Adventures of Monopoly is as madcap and alternative. Matt Damon dressed as a Giant Boot, stamping on everyone he meets while singing "These boots are made for walking" is instant screen gold. Similarly, a penniless Leonardo diCaprio, reduced to the states of a bum after visiting hotels far too often, would also delight the whole family.

One can only hope that Mousetrap, Scrabble and long forgotten Games Workshop game Oi, Dat's My Leg! are up for treatment too.

Anyone got any better ideas/photoshop skillz?

Update: Wired has some answers.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The "Great" Literature Purge, '08

Of the three aspirations made at the start of the year, the second - clearing out some books - is probably the easiest.

I had visions of a Fahrenheit 451 style purge, but realised we have working fire alarms, so probably wouldn't get too far. (It might have helped with aspiration #3, too.) Similarly, "Richard and Judy's Book Denouncement Club" would probably take too long to a) form, and b) get round to the books I want to get rid of. So, being a geek, I decided the next best thing would be to write a site that combined Freecycle with eBay. A kind of alternate-economy-donation-auctioneering place where all those with a love of eclectic paperyness could, you know, hang out and stuff. I had a sitemap and everything.

Then I found chanceXchange, and kind of decided it was silly to reinvent the wheel. So I'm using that now.

It feels like it's in "beta" a little - navigation could be improved a bit, and there's not much "churn" on there - but the basics work. You sign up, choose your country, then list your stuff you don't want. When someone claims it, you send it off to them, and in exchange for postage costs, you get a credit when it arrives. Then you can use your credits to claim stuff off other people.

You can see my current list of things I'm giving away, or check out my profile here. There's a handy faq, too. Of course, you can always ask me to bring stuff to the pub, or sidestep the site but, uh, I liked the idea of spreading the Xchange word.

Of course, that doesn't do much to stop me buying more books. So far this year, I think I'm about even: one in, one out. 2 quid for coats. Got ID?

On to the fire-making.

Realisation

A slow vibration.
E equals m times C squared.
There is no danger.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Conspiracies and Nuclear Struggle

A third undersea cable break means that Iran is currently out for the count, cut off like Luke Skywalker's light-saber-wielding hand. If you're following this, then you'll recall that Iran is currently both partying, and deploying a new Oil Marketplace.

Now, I'm not a conspiracy nut, but 3 cables being cut in less than a week? C'mon. Conflicting reports over how it happened? C'mon. Politics is everywhere. Politics Owns You. The Victorians built their politics on cables.

On the pro-paranoia horn-tooting front, it's good to see that my own theories about the attraction of nuclear power are backed up by national press. Namely, that nuclear energy is not a warfare threat, but a commodity, and therefore an economic threat. In short, creating nuclear fuel is a centralised process (as opposed to, say, wind or solar energy), which means it can be controlled more easily and, from there, sold more easily. Wars on nuclear powers are more akin to copy-protected music than to fighting the Bad Guys.

To tie all this together then, we have a) a falling, flailing dollar as the US's self-sufficiency comes to a rapid (but foretold) end, and b) a new marketplace opportunity, a re-discovery of an energy paradigm. The two are completely related, so chuck out those notions of coincidence. There is, in other words, a power gap.

Unfortunately, my sense of history is poor. I couldn't say whether the last Great War* was caused by a similar power gap, or whether it created one. Either way, political nature abhors a power vacuum, and so we stand on the edge of a New Struggle*. "A New Hope", if you're looking for a "positive" spin to put on it... The search for the new "fuelgold standard" is beginning. (Which fits nicely into other thoughts from this week, but I'll come back to them some time later.)

Whether a few scissor snips just delays the inevitable, or actively cancels it somehow, will be a matter of interest. (If I wanted Iran out of the way, I'd have made sure that "submarine" hit that cable quite a few times. Reversing and going over it again should work.)

* I hate talking about the world in terms of war, especially "great" ones. But to understand the way the People In Charge think, this is the rhetoric we need to use. Depressing, isn't it?

Addendum: See also Mike Whitney's article over at Global Research.