One law for one Saturday, November 29, 2008
The arrest of Damian Green MP raises many significant questions, but one wonders whether the same matters of principle regarding leaks will be applied to HM Treasury and its' Ministers.
Much of the Pre-Budget Report's contents were leaked in the weekend press ahead of Darling's speech. Reasonably to be considered price sensitive information eg Government forecasts affect share and gilt prices, these leaks surely warrant investigation on a similar basis as immigration figures.
Or are there "good" leaks and "bad" ones?
The economic downturn has apparently led to a big drop in demand for recycled materials such as used paper, plastic and aluminum.
The Telegraph reports today that Councils are being forced to store collected recycling materials that they can't sell on. As a result some Councils are abandoning recycling collections and withdrawing drop-off points.
At a time when enthusiasm for recycling is high and Councils have been set targets by Government, the market collapse will sadly undermine environmentally-friendly efforts.
Whilst fiscal subsidies to encourage use of recycled material could be introduced, they would be costly at a time of ballooning Government debt. Moreover, most consumption of such materials has been in China, so domestic UK subsidy would be ineffective.
Alternatively, the Government could tax non-recycled items (or those without a min recycled element e.g. 30% of packaging) to incentivise the market, under a green tax heading. Whilst fraught with compliance complications and possible unexpected outcomes, it may be essential to achieve environmental targets and reduce stockpiles.
Wheels coming off at Porsche? Friday, November 28, 2008
Image via WikipediaPorsche on Wednesday said revenues had plunged 15 per cent in the past four months and expected revenues in the four months to the end of November to come in below €2bn ($2.6bn). It expected unit sales to fall 18 per cent in the same period.
Fortunately, it has made considerable sums from share dealing practices in VW shares that would be considered market abuse in the UK, but which apparently are perfectly acceptable in Germany. The results of this were to impose considerable losses on hedge funds, albeit it is unclear how many were forced to close as a consequence.
Is it surprising that hedge fund managers can no longer afford to buy Porsche cars as a consequence?
If you happen to be cutting back on evenings out, in favour of home entertaining, you may want to check out Lucky Voice, which provides a free online Karoke service i.e. there's no "money, money, money" involved.
It has a large collection of songs to choose from and even has "social" features on top e.g. photo sharing and favourite song lists you can share with friends.
Great idea, [but not recommended during office hours].
Image via WikipediaExcellent one-liner from Rory Bremner at the Insitute of Directors Dinner this week, when he suggested that Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, might be tempted to rescue MFI in case he needed a new cabinet.
Ontario carpooling restrictions - Wednesday, November 12, 2008
You can only gasp in amazement at the story here about the ruling handed out by an Ontario court to a web start-up designed to assist people to carpool.
No matter that Ontario allegedly wants to encourage carpooling on environmental grounds, it seems the transport companies who were behind the action think that making carpooling harder for people will shift them out of their cars onto public transport.
The PickupPal blog sets out the Ontario restrictions, which brought them into Court:
The only way you can ride with someone is if you meet ALL of the following extremely impractical set of specific criteria:
- You must travel from home to work only – (Not Home to School, or Home to the Hospital or the Airport)
- You cannot cross municipal boundaries – (Live outside the city and drive in – sorry you cannot share the ride with your neighbour)
- You must ride with the same driver each day – (Want to mix it up go with one person one day and another person another day – no sorry cannot do that – must be same person each day)
- You must pay the driver no more frequently than weekly – (Neighbour drives you to work better not pay her right away just in case she drives you later on in the week)
However, it appears even the Ontario Govt recognise the lunacy of the situation and appear to have begun the process of changing the rules.
Sadly services like this don't eliminate the concerns people have about accepting a lift from strangers, which is probably the biggest deterrent to greater take-up.
Image via CrunchBaseDespite my failure to become a Twitter cult follower, a number of friends from the blogging and tech world have repeatedly nudged me to have another try.
However, each time I've tried to play with Twitter, a technology barrier impeded me. Having a blackberry, I tended to use email to interact with Twitter when on the move [avoided SMS costs!]. However, the service I began by using simply died one day [Emailtwitter]. Thereafter, several people recommended Twitterberry but having installed it, I simply couldn't get it to work on my Blackberry 8800 for inexplicable reasons.
Finally I was pointed in the direction of Tinytwitter, and if you are both a Blackberry user and Twitter fan then I recommend it. It installed easily and worked immediately. It seems very compressive and its' ease of use did encourage me to post. It's still very early days and I confess I still haven't got the Twitter bug, but maybe I'll have an epiphany sometime soon.
My Twitter id is johndwilson
Image via WikipediaHaving seen references to Vlingo, which claimed to give BlackBerry smartphone users control over mobile information and tasks with the power of their voice, I thought I would give it a try whilst they were running a UK beta.
It was easy to install the application and it did work very well on my Blackberry 8800, with a reasonably good accuracy rate on speech to text and in following standard commands.
However, to use this service you really need to be on an unlimited data plan, as it appears that every translation involves interaction with the server across a data connection. Whilst this is understandable, I'm speculating that this will be a data hungry process [no evidence either way].
As I'm fairly quick at typing on a Blackberry , so the imperative for the application is less than it might be. However, the convenience of initiating calls, emails, sms and text entry was appealing and it quickly became something I adopted, albeit briefly. If only T-mobile UK offered an unlimited data plan, [and one that was reasonably priced], I would certainly continue to use the application. As it is, the data costs are likely to be too prohibitive relative to the value I derive.
Presently the application is free and I see from their web site that they have enabled Yahoo search within the application, which may well be generating some referral fees for the company.
Many years ago, I was involved during the early stages of a fledgling Recognised Investment Exchange in the UK called Tradepoint. The model it operated was revolutionary and addressed many of the flaws in the LSE operated model of the day.
They introduced the notion of clearing and a central counterparty to the UK equity market, using LCH as the operator of the arrangements. This was quite radical, monetising for the first time the inherent counterparty and market risks that went with current trading and settlement practices. Pre and post trade anonymity were side-effects of this structure and its' operation was underpinned by a reliance on electronic trading. Unfortunately, things that are now taken for granted were shunned by a market participants of the day who were happier with the status quo, prefering to ignore the risks, as well as remain inefficient.
Tradepoint had been launched with the backing of several banks, but who significantly avoided having to commit flow/liquidity to the new Exchange. As a consequence, despite being cost efficient thanks to its' technology, trading volumes were pitifully low and so it struggled in financial and credibility terms. In 1999, the business was re-financed and re-launched by a new consortium including Instinet. However, in 2000, amidst a backdrop of European Exchanges mergers & acquisitions, the Swiss Exchange bought Tradepoint and subsequently renamed it Virt-X.
In 2003, the business was finally forced to re-focuss its' efforts on the Group's key offering around Swiss stocks. Sadly, the Swiss Group this week announced the closure of SWX Europe, as the business became known.
Interesting there are many parallels between Laker Airways and today's low-cost airlines, and the link between Tradepoint and today's Multilateral Trading Facilities ["MTF"] such as Chi-X, Turquoise and BATS. Both were ahead of their time and sadly neither benefited from the revolution they foresaw.
I shall fondly remember "Tradepoint" and the contribution it made.
Image via WikipediaThe current economic downturn is forcing business to look at all options for weathering the downturn, including corporate restructuring. However, many companies and potential acquirers of companies face the challenge of fully funding pension scheme liabilities under "Section 75" if they wish to enact changes that may imperil schems.
Introduced in 2004, it directly tackled a loophole highlighted by Maersk, the Danish shipping line, which tried to walk away from the pension liabilities of its UK subsidiary even though it remained solvent. The scenario at the time was one of plunging stock markets and falling bond yields unmasked which created huge pension deficits that were transparent to investors. Unsurprisingly, companies sought to restructure to avoid their pension responsibility and, at the time, it was estimated that about 125,000 UK pension scheme members had been affected by such moves.
Now in a bizarre about-turn by the UK Government, at a time when pension deficits are to balloon again after huge falls in stock markets, the Pensions Minister has announced a consultation process with a view to watering down the scheme. It apparently reflects concerns that Section 75 is impeding "necessary" restructuring.
For clarity, I do have considerable sympathy with companies who are impeded from introducing restructuring measures on the basis that they simply cannot fund deficits at this time - corporate borrowing is difficult enough right now, and so to be forced to use scarce funding for "non-business" purposes is a massive issue. Moreover, since Section 75 was introduced, there have been a number of examples of high profile takeovers that have fallen through because of the need to fund a pension deficit upfront e.g. Sainsbury's.
Similarly I recognise the difficult balance that exists between allowing companies to implement measures to keep a company afloat to the benefit of current stakeholders and the protection that needs to be afforded to current and future pensioners.
Worryingly, if measures did backfire and companies exploited any changes to the detriment of pensioners as is likely, it may actually lead to more Pension schemes having to turn for funding to the Pension Protection Fund, which is funded by pension schemes via a levy.
Recycling in London - a winner Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The UK Government has announced the winner of a competition designed to find better ways that the Government could make public data available. "Show us a better way" selected 5 ideas including one which has resulted in the website "Recycle for London", which highlights places in London you can recycle and opportunities to increase your recycling.
It provides useful details about local services including opening times and materials that can be recycled.
Sadly the site seems wedded to London Borough boundaries, highlighting services that may be on the far side of your borough rather than closer ones which may cross a border into the neighbouring borough. This may be at the insistence of the Councils themselves who only want to bear the cost of their own ratepayers, or it could be poor site design. Either way, it seems at odds with energy efficiency considerations.
Full details of the competition winners were reproduced from the official site were
Ideas where we hope to create a fully working tool
Ideas where we will develop the idea further
Prototypes we will be funding to be developed further
- UK School Maps (showing where the UK’s schools are - building on data released for the competition by the Department for Children, Schools and Families);
- School Guru, which helps determine whether your child could get into a school (in Hertfordshire only at present);
- Where’s the Path, with an Ordnance Survey map and Google Maps satellite picture of any spot; and
- UK Wreck Map, showing the location of undersea wrecks around Britain’s coast.
The fabulous thing is how the public's efforts can
- identify great ideas at little or no cost via crowdsourcing
- build useful solutions provided the data is made available from the closed data stores held by Govt at no cost
Viewdle is could be considered yet another facial recognition software offering that claims to be able to identify individuals in video for the purposes of searching and index such output. What differentiates it, is that Reuters is seemingly making use of its' capabilities to index their video output as illustrated here, which you can try out on their video archive.
This is an important area of technology given how much information is buried in newsreels as well as increasingly in video clips, and which would take considerable human effort to properly index. More significantly, this service claims to operate in real-time. This type of service would ideally benefit from being combined with a) a speech recognition engine that could also capture transcribe the audio in order to make it indexable/searchable; and b) an alerting mechanism that could notify you if relevant people/terms had been found in videos or on live tv.
Popego have tweaked an existing concept, namely that of trying to filter the noise from the web [blogs, twitter, flickr feeds, video] to hone it into a stream of things most likely to interest you. Their twist is to also apply your filters to help you find others with similar profiles.
A Techcrunch 50 finalist they are also showcasing at Le Web.
Popego automatically creates your interest profile by scanning your own digital output [blog, friendfeed, flickr, picasa, youtube......] and locating your most significant areas of interest via tags and keywords. This profile may then be finessed by increasing/decreasing the prominence of those items. Oddly, Popego only examines your shared items rather than your actual RSS subscriptions and I confess that I don't tend to use the share function.
The result of this is your own "interest feed" which serves up content that the service considers relevant to your interests.
Popego also consolidates all of your digital output for easing viewing by others and likewise allows you to view the consolidated profiles of others.
I am loathe to add to my current daily consumption of digital material but am attracted to smarter filtering of content [please filter out iPhone content!!!]. I have yet to find such a mechanism that I could overlay over Google Reader, which I am presently wedded to. Likewise I recognise it is easy to fall into a comfort zone of current sources of information rather than continually refreshing/replenishing useful sources of material.
Is this the product to satisfy that need? Sadly, I'm not convinced.
Squareclock - 3d space planning for free Monday, November 10, 2008
I confess to being hopeless when it comes to visualising how interiors will look, be it after decoration, home improvements or with new furnishings. Hence, I've always been drawn to any store or service provider that can provide me with actual visual mock-ups of how things are expected to look, which thankfully encompasses an increasing number of stores. The fact the architect we used last year was an "old-timer" who insisted on hand drawn plans drove me nuts - changing anything on the plans involved considerable re-work rather than a simple drag'n'drop.
So, whilst it is not unique and is unlikely to be something the average consumer would use very often, Squareclock appeals to me, allowing anyone to "design" their house project for free in 3D inside their web browser and then furnish, decorate, arrange, transform it virtually with real products and services from professionals.
The service has obvious revenue potential - paid-for version of the service for designers and architects, who in turn can encourage interior furnishing companies to host their product ranges in the galleries, with the possibility down the line of Squareclock charging for "gallery space" or charging a commission on transactions perhaps placed via the site e.g. specifications could be issued and quotes received.
Meanwhile, for those considering home improvements [now that you can no longer sell your house or afford to move], this might be an ideal sketch pad to outline your ideas and create your own grand designs.
Zipiko is a new approach to arranging meet-ups with friends that I can imagine catching on, which is showcasing at Le Web.
In concept it is very similar to Upcoming.org or even Meetup in that it is orientated around the notion of publishing events which your friends can see. The service is free [no ads spotted either] and is entirely web-hosted.
Members set up an event, detailing time and place plus comments. Thereafter friends can either be specifically invited or the event made public amongst your friends who can choose to participate in the open invite. Hence you can see events that your friends are organising and elect to opt in e.g. join your friends to watch the rugby in the pub.
I found that setting up an event was very easy and intutitive, via the simple online interface. Likewise, inviting friends was very easy. Interestingly the service currently send free SMS messages or emails to invite people, as well as notifying you of their responses.
To add friends to your account, you have the option of importing your phone contacts as well as importing contact from Gmail. Any friends you do add have to positively accept your invite to connect. I confess that didn't find either appealing since my address books co-mingle friends and business contacts. I think they should definitely be looking to add the capability to import contacts from services like Facebook, Twitter etc and you can buy code to do this off the shelf these days for less than $100.
The site claims it has been configured to be easy to use via mobile phone and a brief check on my own Blackberry phone browser did confirm this.
Connecting your events to your calendar is possible albeit only 30 Boxes appeared to be supported when I tried.
Whilst I understand that the team behind this are keen that you regularly use their site, I think the service would benefit from creating an ical feed of events from your "crowd" that could be accessible by calendar applications, with entries that link back to the Zipiko site. I say this because Gmail and Google calendar are two webapps I use constantly whereas I am initially less likely to have Zipiko open constantly. Likewise, it would be great if you could "send an calendar invite" to your own Zipiko account from say Google calendar to be added to the events list.
Worth trying when organising your next social meetup.
Bremner, Bird & Fortune do it again Sunday, November 09, 2008
I highly recommend you watch this excellent episode of Silly Money by Bremner, Bird & Fortune. 48 mins in length but well worth watching all the way through as the team discuss recent market events.