Sunday, September 29, 2013

An existential re-tweet

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Films

Here be some quick reviews from a bunch of movies I watched in recent weeks.


The Place Beyond the Pines is an interesting film with powerful performances from all involved - it's nice to see Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling stretching their acting skills once in a while. Eva Mendes has a lesser role in the movie but she still nails it. The script is split into three parts, which transition seamlessly and then link together nicely at the end.

*** 1/2


Holy Motors is an amazing and unique masterpiece of French cinema. I am still thinking about what it means and I mean this in a good way. This movie is utterly compelling but is not for the feint of heart. Eva Mendes turns up again here in fine form, as does Kylie Minogue!

****1/2 (giving it an extra half a star for being so well made on a paltry budget of less than 4m euros)


Killer Joe is the worst film I have ever seen. It has no redeeming features and is just vile filth. It has a story but it isn't a good one. No stars. My time would have been better employed staring at a wall.

Only God Forgives is atmospheric to the extreme. It is dark, neon-lit, quiet, intense, a little bit demented and it leaves you wondering about who you want to come out on top. This is a movie that has produced booes and cheers, with few people in between. I'm in the cheering camp and expect this to be a cult classic in future years.

****

The Illusionist is an enjoyable French animation (actually more of a silent movie) about an almost down and out magician who strikes into a friendship with a young girl, who seems to believe his tricks are real. The animation is spectacular and the movie is filled with heart and care. The only downside is that I wasn't massively taken up with the story.

*** 1/2

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Stephanie Flanders leaves the bbc

Stephanie Flanders was to the BBC what Gillian Tett is to the FT, a damn fine economics journalist. It's a bit of a shame she is leaving the beeb for JP Morgan Asset Management but you can't expect somebody of Flander's talent to stay in the public sector for ever. We wish you luck...now go fourth and prognosticate!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The patent absurdity of Miliband's energy policy

It is difficult to comprehend the economic illiteracy behind Ed Miliband's announced plans to freeze the prices charged by energy companies for a full twenty months. Okay, it's actually quite easy to comprehend the plans when you allow for the fact that politicians are constantly playing such games at the expense of the public - you know, the masses they are supposed to serve. It's damn scary either way.

In a nutshell, Labour's idea is that since around 2010 the big six energy companies skimmed some £3.9bn from customers in artificially high charges and now its time payback time, with about £4.5bn planned in the claw-back. In addition, Labour are looking at breaking up the energy companies on the basis that the current structure is anti-competitive. Here are some of my quick thoughts:

  • The implication is that over the past few years Ofgem has got the completely wrong picture of the sector and Labour somehow know better than the regulator. I'll have to put my hand up here as somebody who works for one of the big six but I also don't see how it's all that anti-competitive, it at all. If it is, it's probably only at the margins, although I really don't have the information to make a confident judgement call here. I think the bigger issue is that customers are sticky, a bit like they are with banks, but they do have the freedom to shop around and switching is pretty easy these days.
  • A large portion of the rise in energy bills has been due to the governments various green tariffs and such like. Okay, these were enacted by the conservatives but I doubt Labour would be opposed to them.
  • Price freeze controls have been proven through history to cause large scale disruptions and distortions. We see this distortion in rent controlled apartments from Manhattan to Prague, in the long queues at petrol stations the world over whenever governments introduce price caps (e.g. in the US during the OPEC crisis) and in the empty shelves of the stores in times of rationing. The simple economics of it is that when a price is frozen at a low level, there is no equilibrium in the market - the quantity of goods demanded rises due to the lower price while the quantity of goods willing to be supplied at this low price reduces. End result: a shortage. The shortage can lead or reductions on quality, or in the case of price caps in the Californian power market, black-outs.
  • Note, the UK is a country with a severe power generation capacity problem around the corner and there were already pressing concerns of the lights going or, or at least flickering, before Labour's announcement. Capping prices may provide a short-term hit for voters but the impact on investment signals is such that any serious investment plans in the UK's energy infrastructure will surely be called into question by the big six. The end result could be even higher prices and more black-outs.
  • Of the big six energy companies, two are listed in the UK. These are Centrica and SSE. Today, their share prices fell over 5% are the market digested the implications of Labour's proposals. This translated to a combined total of £1.9bn wiped off the market capitalisation of just two of the big six. So already the public (ultimately, shares are held by the public through pension funds and other investment funds) are down at least £1.9bn. Good work Labour, good work indeed. 
  • If price caps are so patently absurd, then why are they being pursued? It's good vote-grabbing politics because the impact is clearly evident for a large group of people, while the distortionary losses that are already being felt (even though Labour isn't even in power!) are far less transparent. Indeed, with anti-market sentiment running so high right now (the press is littered with news of banks and brokers being fined for malpractice), the public appetite for payback must be at a peak. 
  • If the above point is not true then we are in an even worse situation because it means the current Labour doesn't get basic GCSE level economics and is genuinely misguided in its thinking.
  • Before you mark me as talking my book, note that I applauded the government's decision not to subsidise UK gas storage projects even though it will be to my direct detriment.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Wasp sting


I suffered a wasp sting to the neck earlier today. The area is a little tender and sore but overall the sensation is nowhere near as painful as I had come to expect. They say that when a bee stings, it dies, whereas a wasp can sting several times in a row and be none the worse for it. As for this wasp, this sting was its last - it suffered an over-arm smash with a tennis racket and was thereafter promptly dispatched back to the hell from whence it came by way of a crushing foot stomp.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Breaking Bad Fail

So I joined Neflix over the weekend and had my first, and probably last, full-blown tv marathon. Between 11pm on Saturday and 7pm Sunday I did nothing but eat, drink and watch the final season of Breaking Bad, episodes 1 through to 13. I fully expected to watch the whole season through but when I clicked on episode 14 - the last in the list - a message came up saying it wasn't available as it hadn't aired. Major let down. A quick Google search revealed that episode 14 was airing Stateside that evening and would be on Netflix UK the following day. And it did. And it was great.

But again I failed, for this wasn't the last epsiode! It turns out that there are still two more episodes to go before the whole thing wraps up. On the upside, at least I am now up to speed with everyone else and won't get caught out by any spoiler headlines.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Farnham street blog on reading

A recent post on the farnham street blog titled finding the time to read  is well worth finding the time to read, along with all the comments.

Robo-subsidy

The EU is backing a project to create a workable robo-exoskeleton suit. It sounds like pretty cool technology and the tax payer transfer amounts to 4.5 million euros, which is a drop in the great ocean that is the EU budget.

But there's something I don't get: if the robo-suit is economically feasible then enterprise will surely take care of the R&D, production and distribution all by itself. I am struggling to see the market failure the government is trying to address here. Or do they just a few spare million euros lying around, after all it's not like there's a fiscal crisis going on (cough, cough, splutter, choke). Indeed, I hear faint echoes of Quaero, the EU state sponsored search engine that was supposed to be Europe's answer to Google. Problem is it failed big time and cost a few hundred million in the meantime. Of course, the incentive to organise and complain against these shenanigans is minimal as the EU population is simply too dispersed, great in number and too far removed from the decision makers. And so it will go on.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Film: The Way Way Back (2013)


The Way Way Back is an excellent coming-of-age type film that mixes humour with some of harsh realities of real-life. The story isn't quite realistic in its ending but the movie does steer well clear of the sickly sweet category and instead just makes you feel good about things in general. Mr "I love lamp" Steve Carrel surprises by transforming himself into a believable jock-dad jerk character, but it is Sam Rockwell who steals the limelight, playing a laissez-faire, fun-loving manager of a water park. Rockwell also has the best lines in the movie, including something along the lines of "there's no point Googling it, that fact predates technology". Rockwell has really come to the fore in movies like Seven Psychopaths and The Way Way back as someone who can nail wild characters but he is strikingly versatile (watch "Moon"). Here's hoping the interesting roles keep flowing.

The Way Way back is definitely one of the better films of the summer.

****

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Book notes 3 of 3: The Big Questions by Steve Landsburg - The Headache Problem


"The Headache Problem. A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is kills, in which case they will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person?

I didn't actually understand why this was a dilemma; the answer is yes, for reasons that would be immediately obvious to any economist. The philosopher reached the same conclusion for the same reasons, but took forty pages to get there and then declared the result 'counterintuitive.'

Here's how an economist see the question: First, virtually nobody would pay a dollar to avoid a one-in-a-billion chance of death (We know this for example, from studies of willingness to pay for auto safety devices.) Second, most people - at least in the developed world, where I assume all of this risk is taking place - would happily pay a dollar to cure a headache. (I don't actually know this, but it seems probable). Third, this tells me that most people think a headache is worse than a one-in-a-billion chance of death. So if I replace your headache with a one-in-a-billion chance of death, I've done you a favour. And I can do precisely that by killing a headache sufferer at random.

The philosopher who found this conclusion bizarre and counter intuitive .... must have little experience living in the real world, where we agree to kill people all the time. We drive, install swimming pools, use drain cleaners, and drink tequila, knowing with certainty that some number of people will die as a result."


And a bonus quote to close:

Delight in Losing Arguments
Argue passionately for your beliefs, listen intently to your adversaries, and root for yourself to lose. When you lose, you've learned something.

From The Big Questions by economist Steve Landsburg.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Book notes 2 of 3: The Big Questions by Steve Landsburg - The Trolley Problem

Here is economist Steve Landsburg ("The Big Questions") on top form discussing the Trolley Problem:

"The Trolley Problem, Version 1: A trolley is hurtling out of control along a track, bearing down on five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. You can avert the disaster by flipping a switch that diverts the trolley to another track. Unfortunately, there is one man tied to that other track. Is it morally permissible (or for that case, morally mandatory) to flip the switch?


The Trolley Problem, Version 2: A trolley is hurtling out of control along a track, bearing down on five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. You can avert the disaster by pushing a man in front of it. Is it morally permissible (or for that case, morally mandatory) to push the man in front of the trolley?

Both actions have exactly the same consequences: Five lives saved. ...it seemed obvious to me that in either case, there's a moral case to sacrifice the one for the five. ...The very essence of moral judgements is that they're divorced from self-interest.  ... In other words, you moral judgements are the judgements you'd make if you could somehow forget who you are and what you've got at stake. ...This 'amnesia principle' comes to us from John Harsanyi, a Nobel-prize winning economist...

... I want to apply the amnesia principle to the trolley problem. In the first version, five people are tried to the track and one person to the other. If I've somehow forgotten who I am, I at least know this: I am five times as likely to be one of the five as to be the one alone. My death is therefore five times more likely if you fail to pull the switch. I hope you pull it.

In the second version .... my death is five times more likely if you fail to push the man. I hope you push him.
In one sense these calculations are entirely self-interested, but in another they're the very opposite. As long as I don't know who I am (and as long as I'm equally likely to be any given person as another), my 'self-interest' accounts for everyone's interests."

Monday, September 02, 2013

Book notes 1 of 3: The Big Questions by Steve Landsburg - Career Advice

So I have finally just gotten around to typing out some passages from The Big Questions by economist Steve Landsburg. Landsburg is a spiky, controversial guy who likes to throw down on contentious issues. Whether you agree with him or not, he certainly makes you think and for that alone he deserves much credit.

Here he is on career choices:

Is it okay to be a circus clown? Sure. Circus clowns produce entertainment which is every bit as legitimate a commodity as food and clothing. 

Is it okay to be an Olympic athlete? Get serious. You really think it's fitting for an ambitious, hard-working, twenty-three-year-old to devote his life to volleyball? You'd be more productive wandering down to the grocery store and returning stray carts from the parking lot.

Wait a minute. Aren't the Olympics a form entertainment? And didn't you just say entertainment is socially valuable? Yes and yes. There's huge social value in the Olympics.

Then why shouldn't I participate? Because the questions isn't whether the Olympics add value. It's whether you add to that value.

If you build a table, the world has one more table. If you bake a cupcake, the world has one more cupcake. ...But if you win an Olympic medal, the world will not have one more Olympic medalist. It will just have you instead of somebody else. ...would the world really suffer so much if the fastest pitch in Major League Baseball were ninety-four mile an hour instead of ninety-six (with a commensurate reduction in the batter's skill)? For that matter, the same is true of any tournament. ...a single athlete..can entertain the entire world. Along the way they capture a lot of the income that would have gone to their competitors. That income represents a transfer of wealth, not a social contribution.

Is it okay to be a corporate executive? For the most part, sure. An executive's job is to maximise profit, and usually the best way to do that is to produce goods and services that people value. Unfortunately, some executives seek profits by lobbying for subsidies, tariff protection, and import quotas, all of which are socially destructive. If you're that kind of corporate executive, I hope you're ashamed of yourself.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Book: The Para Fitness Guide by Major Sam McGrath

The  Para Fitness Guide provides some exercising basics weaved together with stories and background of the Paras; a good combination to motivate your humble servant to get off the couch!

***

Some scriblings

- Para entry requirements: ten over-arm pull-ups; over 60 sit-ups in two minutes; over 80 press-ups in two minutes; followed by completing a 1.5 mile run in under nine minutes 18 seconds.

- A 5-minute muscular endurance test comprises 1-minute of:
Press-ups, Sit-ups, Star jumps, Squat thrusts, and Burpees, with a 10-second break between each.
Combined Total Exercise target is as follows:
Basic (0-99), Recruit (100-199), Soldier (200-264), Para (>265).

Fitness is broken down into four components:
  • Endurance (e.g. running, extended period press-ups)
  • Strength (ability to exert force on physical objects)
  • Speed (high velocity movements)
  • Flexibility (ability for joints to produce a full range of movement)
Fitness is developed by:
  • Frequency
  • Intensity
  • Time
  • Type
"if you train hard, you fight easy"