Blogging is dead and no-one cares?

My riot policing piece yesterday attracted 600 unique visitors in 24 hours. That isn’t exactly Perez Hilton, but is about six times my current normal run rate (I think the biggest this blog has ever been is about 1000 daily visitors, for some of the global financial crisis articles).

The fact that the piece had quite a few visitors isn’t too surprising, I suppose – it was a take on a newsworthy and important topic that dissented somewhat from the conventional wisdom, based on hours and hours of discussion with people who were on the scene across different English cities and/or who really understand counterinsurgency strategy. And it was pleasing to see strategy/COIN experts talking about it favourably.

The odd thing, though, is that whenever I’ve written a piece in the past that has gained masses of attention, it’s been through links from bigger blogs, news sources, or occasionally forums. This time, as far as I can see from my logs, there haven’t been *any* blog links to the piece. All the traffic is coming from retweets and reshares on Twitter and Facebook.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say that blogs are dead as a medium: the existence of a self-publishing platform with a fairly powerful off-the-shelf CMS, and that isn’t restricted to a particular social network, remains useful.

But it’s looking like the sense in which we’ve traditionally understand blogs – roughly, a community of people who link to each other’s posts, comment on them, and write pieces that track back to them – no longer really applies. Facebook and Twitter have killed it, in favour of something flatter and much less based on the blogger’s personal brand.

Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’

I’m not going to do a hand-wringing riots piece. We’ve seen a million of them, whether from a cartoonish ‘make them less poor’ point of view, an authoritarian ‘hell in a handbasket, we’re doomed’ point of view, or a bigoted ‘rivers of blood’ point of view. It’s dull.

However, following on from Jamie’s post about how the riots went down in Manchester, and a question on Tim’s blog about Liverpool and Manchester cops making more arrests more rapidly than London cops, I do have a few thoughts on police tactics.

First up, the police did an excellent job at preventing loss of life and serious injury. Obviously, the deaths in Birmingham are terribly sad – and if the initial eyewitness statements prove to be correct, about as cowardly and evil as it gets. But the fact that in London, nobody was killed and few bystanders were seriously hurt is amazing, and not what anyone would have expected from news footage on Sunday/Monday. “People not being killed” is more important than “Currys not being robbed”.

But while the police did well on that basic front, the disorder in London lasted longer than the public could reasonably be expected to tolerate – hence the myriad of calls throughout the week to send in the Army, and/or to use water-cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas. The problem is that none of these would actually have helped. In short, policing in London on Sunday/Monday didn’t fail due to lack of force, or due to political correctness preventing officers from beating thugs up (plenty of beating up of thugs was done). Rather, it was due to a lack of understanding of what was going on – and, to some extent, a lack of absolute manpower.

The looters this time round flashmobbed. Digressionally, this is why BlackBerry Messaging is important to how the riots worked, not just an irrelevant detail like Twitter and Facebook. For example, the mass of reinforcements 30 seconds into this looters-push-back-cops video has to be pre-arranged, not random. Throughout London, mobs turned up at a co-ordinated time, looted, ran away, and regrouped. That isn’t how riots have historically happened: normally, the mob is trying to claim a specific territory, and the authorities are trying to stop them. Like a traditional war, with a front line.

These riots are the difference between WWII and Vietnam: the insurgents didn’t have a front line, but tried to appear, attack and disappear – and the authorities just didn’t know how to handle the new kind of conflict. Adding water cannons and CS gas into the mix wouldn’t have done anything to stop the looters, and I’m sceptical that rubber bullets would have achieved much. Live automatic weaponry would’ve done the job, but if you think that’s an acceptable solution to teenagers robbing shops, then you’re a dangerous lunatic who shouldn’t be allowed out in public.

The only alternative to mass slaughter is to adopt standard counterinsurgency measures. You learn the looters’ tactics, how they’re organised, you disrupt and intercept their communications, you try and infiltrate their groups, you arrest known looters when they’re at home in bed rather than out looting – and you use all the above measures to ensure that looters can’t get to their targets, and that if they do get to a target, then they can’t escape again.

In London, once the cops worked this all this out and managed to mobilise extra troops, the rioting stopped almost immediately (presumably because the looters either got arrested fairly rapidly, or worked out that they would get arrested if they didn’t stop). When the looting began in Manchester and Liverpool, the police had the benefit of a three-day London case study to work into their own plans, so it’s no massive surprise that they were able to end everything in a night.

Politically speaking, the wider mob of angry non-looting citizenry needs to be placated – so completely useless draconian measures seem likely to be introduced. If they are, they’re certain to be used when more-or-less peaceful demonstrations like UKuncut get rowdy, because those are the crowd dynamics in which CS gas and water cannons ‘work’ (if you class quelling the violent thugs slightly more rapidly, while also injuring far more non-violent protestors than would otherwise be the case, as ‘working’). So that’s a bit depressing for those of us who support the right to political protests.

But the good news (at least, for people who don’t like their house being on fire) is that the things the authorities have clearly learned over the last few days make it unlikely that the perceived total breakdown of law and order seen in London will be repeated. At least, not until the next new kind of rioting strategy emerges…

Have Google ever met any foreigners?

The World’s Unsurprisingly Fastest-Growing Networking Platform, Google+, is getting stick from various corners for its naming policy. This formally restricts you to “Use your full first and last name in a single language“.

The idea behind it is sensible. G+ aims to be a combination of a professional network like LinkedIn, and a personal network like Facebook, with ‘circles’ ensuring your clients can’t see your Tequila Night photos and that your girlfriend’s mates don’t get spammed with your articles on social media marketing.

In both those cases, the connections and relationships that people have become meaningful *because* they use their real names. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, despite now having 750 million users encompassing many utter idiots, hasn’t descended into the kind of horrible pseudonymous anarchy found on MySpace or Bebo. So banning people from calling themselves thinks like HotBloke1988 or BieberFan1997 is probably a good thing.

Similarly, and also sensibly, Google wants to have proper segmentation between users, interests, brands. This is a model which Facebook took some years to implement properly, leading to the occasional whinge and/or viral petition from silly people when their inappropriately-set-up page gets taken down because it’s using a personal profile to advertise a product or political cause. Part of the reason for Google to be so hardcore about enforcing real names in the initial roll-out is to make sure that people understand from Day 1 that You Can’t Do That, and need to set up the proper sort of page for whatever you’re trying to spruik.

While I understand that this annoys some pseudonymous writers, I think they’re a sacrifice worth making in the short term to ensure that Google+ starts and continues as a place based around actual relationships and trust, like Facebook and LinkedIn. In the long term, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t adopt brand identities and share in G+ that way – there’s no real difference between ‘Skud’ and ‘TechCrunch’, in the sense that they’re both content sources defined entirely by what they publish online.

However, the real problem with this part of the G+ roll-out is the massively ham-fisted way in which it deals with anyone whose name doesn’t fit the Anglo-Saxon convention of Firstname Middlename1 Middlename2 Familyname. Which accounts for, erm, almost everyone in China, a sizeable proportion of the population of India, and everyone in Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking countries. And would have been completely avoidable if even *one* developer from *one* of these countries had worked on the G+ project.

If you’re starting a new social network, it’s straightforward to build a database that has 12 name fields instead of 2. This allows you to account for any combination of names in any language, while also allowing your users to select which of those names are displayed in the default profile, and in which order.

So a Chinese person with a Western nickname could write their name as Lee (Familyname) Wan-Wing (Firstname) Robert (Nickname), and then choose to display their name as “Lee Wan-Wing” or “Robert Lee” depending on their preferred convention. The default to display would be Firstname Familyname, but any others would count. Similarly, a Spanish person could enter their name as Javier (Firstname) Garcia (Familyname) Lopez (Matronymic), while a Russian would be Mikhail (Firstname) Sergeyevich (Patronymic), and a South Indian would be Prashant (Name) Kumar (Patronymic). This would make all names traceable and transparent, while also ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to pick something that’s culturally appropriate.

Given that Google employs 10,000 staff outside of the US, including many Indians and many Chinese people, it seems bizarre that this concern doesn’t appear to even have arisen during the G+ roll-out. Differences in database design formed by the use of English versus non-English users have been a massive concern in Internet circles for decades, as highlighted most obviously by the time taken to allow non-ASCII characters for domain names. Any multinational company has to deal with the “names don’t map onto English names” problem for its own staff, even if its customers are largely based in the west (surely there can’t be a software company in the world that doesn’t employ South Indians?).

The only explanation I can think of is that it simply didn’t occur to the senior managers in charge of Google+ that different people worldwide might have different naming concepts. And that none of the less senior foreigners raised the concept. God Bless America!

Amy Winehouse Memorial Stupid Quiz

In memory of everyone’s favourite alcoholic Jewish female jazz singer-songwriter (bonus points for anyone who has a different favourite alcoholic Jewish female jazz singer-songwriter: please share in comments), a single question today. What was the highest UK chart position achieved by Amy Winehouse’s cover version of Valerie?

Why credit ratings weren’t important in the Thameslink deal

I’ve not abandoned this blog – just, whilst struggling with painful paid work on the kind of social media and consumer goods marketing work I tend to post here (it’s rewarding and worthwhile paid work, but whilst working on it for pay I’m not so keen to blog on it for no money), most of what I post tends towards the political, so I tend to post it on Liberal Conspiracy. If you’ve missed out, my work for LC is here. I’m also on Twitter a lot, and am slightly disturbed to see from my tweet figures that I’ve written more than a book’s worth of Tweets. Oh, and also I was blogging as part of my MA course – I should really repost those blogs here.

However, this current topic is definitely unsuited to any of those media. Roger Ford, who’s probably the best railway journalist working in the UK at the moment (sorry Nick!) writes a great technical column in Modern Railways magazine, and sends out a monthly email based on his work for the mag. But although he’s a brilliant rail industry writer, he’s not a great finance industry writer. And so he’s fallen for an insiduous and silly myth spread by the Telegraph’s Alistair Osborne in this piece.

The last UK government put out a tender for 1,200 new train carriages to be built for the Thameslink project, which links southeast London and its commuter belt with north London and its commuter belt via upgraded lines running from London Bridge to St Pancras via Farringdon. The tender didn’t specify any British-built content for the trains, and was won by Siemens with trains that will be built in Germany rather than Bombardier with trains that would’ve been built in Derby. Siemens bid cheaper than Bombardier, and the government wasn’t allowed to take British jobs into account because a specification of British jobs wasn’t part of the invitation to tender.

This created anger, especially as Bombardier used the announcement as a catalyst to announce that it’d sack two thirds of its contract staff and 25% of its permanent staff in UK train-building, because it doesn’t have any UK train orders after it’s finished building new London Underground trains. Europhobics used it as an opportunity to attack the EU’s anti-corruption rules; more sensible people used it as an opportunity to attack the previous government for failing to specify British jobs (as would’ve been allowed by EU rules) in its invitation to tender.

Which is fair comment. A related question, though, is why – as the biggest supplier of trains to the UK railway network over the last five years – is why Bombardier couldn’t outbid Siemens to the contract. Osborne’s claim was that this was a reflection on Bombardier’s credit rating relative to Siemens. Siemens’s debt is rated at A+ by Standard & Poor’s, compared with Bombardier’s BB+ rating, and the contract was to provide the trains on a leasing basis rather than to buy them outright. He says that because it costs Bombardier more to borrow (credit ratings are basically like individual credit scores, so A+ means you get a cheaper loan than BB+), it would’ve cost Bombardier 1.5% more than Siemens per year in interest costs to supply the trains than Siemens, so no bloody wonder Siemens won.

However, this is rubbish. Neither Bombardier nor Siemens bid on their own. Bombardier teamed up with Deutsche Bank, services outsourcing company Serco, PFI investment company Amber Infrastructure and SMBC Leasing for its bid. Siemens teamed up with PFI investment company InnisFree and private equity company 3i Infrastructure. In neither case would the train manufacturer have put up the money for the trains – in Bombardier’s case it would have been SMBC (which has an A+ rating, befitting its position as one of Japan’s least bankrupt banks), and Siemens’s case, it would have been its own corporate finance division (A+) plus 3i Infrastructure (BBB+). For the Bombardier consortium, the money would have been borrowed against SMBC’s account; for the Siemens consortium, it would have been borrowed against Siemens’s account – they would both have had an A+ credit rating.

So, in other words, the Bombardier consortium and the 3i consortium would have had the same financing costs. The only difference is that, had the bid been successful, Siemens’s credit rating and ownership of a finance company would have allowed it to take a higher proportion of the profits. The difference between Bombardier and Siemens based on credit rating is that Bombardier wouldn’t have been able to take an additional slice of the profits based on the financing part of the project, and therefore had to bring in an external partner for the financing. But that’s about how the profits from winning the bid are shared, not about the cost of delivering the trains.

The same EU rules that ban the government from choosing Bombardier because it’s designed and built in Derby also ban the bid from being awarded on a cross-subsidy basis from companies’ finance arms compared to their building arms. In other words, Siemens’s assessment of the cost of building the trains had to be on the same basis as Bombardier’s, and it wasn’t allowed to pretend that the trains were cheaper and offset that money on the basis of any financing that its finance company did. So there’s no sane reason why this should have made the Bombardier consortium’s bid more expensive than the Siemens bid.

In short, either Siemens overbid (presumably because it was desperate to keep a foothold in UK rail, having lost most major recent contracts to Bombardier), or Bombardier underbid (either because it thought the government would somehow dodge the EU rules and pick the British-based trains, or because it couldn’t really be bothered and was looking for an excuse to cut Derby anyway). The financing problem is not important.

Tesco Academy

I went to a state primary school; admittedly, one in a fairly posh part of the world (Christchurch School in Ware, Hertfordshire, for the morbidly curious). It was the 1980s; education was OKish; there were about 30 people in my class, and the ones who properly dribbled on themselves were removed for maths and English lessons.

I discovered Sue Townsend when I was about 10 and therefore managed to get the entire class of Year 6es singing anti-Thatcher songs loudly in assembly, until the deputy head told me that if I didn’t stop doing that they’d tell my nan on me.

I was in the choir. I know that’s a remarkable concept for those who know me these days, but I somehow lost my ability to sing whenever my voice broke. Oh well, it probably saved me some abuse or other. We were a good choir. We went to Cambridge to enter the Best Year 6 Primary School Choir Competition. We lost. It was probably because I couldn’t sing. Also, our song was bloody lame.

But the other thing we did as a choir – and I’m still in awe this happened in 1989 – was to sponsor Tesco’s. There was a walking-running challenge from Newcastle to London sponsored by Tesco, and alongside their computers (or, possibly in those days, typewriters) for schools vouchers, some of my classmates’ mums, aunties and sisters were participating in this challenge. So we were nominated, as a Leading Choir, to record the theme for the Tesco North To South Run Song. What we sang was, to the tune of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In”:

Tesco is here!
Tesco is here!
So can we have a great big cheer!

…the rest of that verse is sadly lost, apart from the soul of Tesco’s then ad agency and then marketing director, where it’s permanently etched in the blood of innocent children.

They’re setting forth right in the North
Collecting money all the way
[repeat first bit]

We were eventually rejected, presumably because one of the choirs on the route from Newcastle to London kicked our arses. Which is probably, again, my fault. Or, reflecting on the scenario 21 years later, the fault of the satanic bastards who set the challenge up in the first place.

This weird occurrence is something I’ve been meaning to blog for ages, mostly in the sense of “marketing to kids is more insidious than when I were a lad? Fuck off”, and also just in the sense of “that happened. No, that actually happened. A choir of kids sang ‘Tesco is here, so can we have a great big cheer’. That happened.”

So yeah. Now that my mates are parents, and angry about marketing, I still can’t think of anything more insanely blatant than that one. If Tesco did it today, they’d be keelhauled, and possibly hanged at the yard-arm.

Minor observations and questions

As a 30ish male, if you walk around the place with a black eye, you will get a combination of contemptuous looks, studied avoidance, and slightly unnerving deference. I’m assuming the latter comes from people who assume that the owner of a black eye has managed to acquire it through being an ultraviolent Begbie figure, rather than through falling off a chair.

I’m guessing that most women trying the same public-black eye-experiment would instead get a combination of pitying looks and studied avoidance, for fairly obvious ‘different stereotype’ reasons, even if said black eye were in fact acquired in a bullfight or crocodile-wrestling accident – any of my female readers shiner-ed themselves up and care to confirm?

Also, it being a public holiday, families were out in force at the supermarket. Two-parent-one-toddler family combinations were noticeably less efficient at shopping, and much more likely to feature at least one screaming angry family member, than one-parent-one-toddler combinations. And that this held whether the one-parent was female or male (I didn’t see any two-same-sex-parent-one-toddler combinations, sadly).

Does the “higher adult/child ratio actually makes shopping more miserable” hold true in readers’ experience? Or are there other factors at play (e.g. “the more unsufferable the toddler, the less willing either parent is to take them out solo if avoidable”)?

The idle musings of John B