The Samovar

Fake terrorism as a commercial strategy?

The small news here in Paris is that five explosive packages (pleasingly, pains d’explosifs in French, which would literally be explosive breads) were found in the big Printemps department store on Boulevard Hausmann (link in English, more up to date link in French). The curious thing though, is that there were no fuses on the explosives. In other words, they couldn’t have detonated! And this isn’t the only curious thing about the case. The French news agency AFP received a letter from a group that was entirely unknown called the Front révolutionnaire afghan (FRA) which the antiterrorist police say hardly fits the style of these things at all. There are no religious references, and instead they use anti-capitalist language. Also, the type of explosive found (dynamite) isn’t typically used by Islamic terrorists.

So there are various theories about what is going on here. One possibility is that this is a warning, the message is that we have explosives and we’re not afraid to use them, so listen to our demands (removal of French troops from Afghanistan). The fact that the actions are atypical suggests maybe that this is not a group with ties to established terrorist organisations, but the work of a small group without ties or even a single individual. And this is probably correct.

However. There is another possibility. The question is: who has the most to gain from this? Who gains from one of the biggest department stores in France being effectively shut down for most of a day in the run up to Christmas? Surely the rivals to Printemps on boulevard Haussman, the Galeries Lafayette, who would most likely have got all the business that Printemps would have got during that day? I don’t know how much these shops would make during a day, but I’d imagine it’s really quite a lot, making it a risky but highly effective strategy.

Now I’m not suggesting that Lafayette did this, indeed it’s very unlikely. It would be incredibly risky for them, and anyway the note delivered to AFP says that the would-be terrorists are targeting the “grands magasins” (referring to both Printemps and Lafayette), and so this could potentially hurt both their profits. Still, it’s an interesting question: are fake terrorist incidents being created by companies to hurt their rivals and increase their own business? It seems like a strategy that would be too good to resist.

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Learning from the US

I talked briefly about Michael Moore’s film Sicko in a previous entry. Since then I’ve come across two articles (here and here) talking about how elements of the American system will be coming to the UK. I have a question about the second one though. John McDonnell, writing about the Labour party conference, states:

While warm words of praise were bestowed on the NHS and public servants, outside in the real world we learned that in order to save the budgets of some primary care trusts, Bupa was to vet whether patients should or should not receive the treatment recommended by their consultants. Bupa will be paid from the savings made by preventing operations.

Anyone got a reference for this? Sounds like exactly the sort of perverse incentive scheme that Moore highlighted in Sicko.

The end of advertising
September 14, 2007, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Business, Capitalism, Economics, Media, Politics

Advertising is one of my perennial bugbears. It does so much harm and gives so little in return. It saps creative talent from society at large, it distorts culture and politics, and perhaps worst of all, it’s unpleasant, noisy and inescapable. Feel free to take me up on any of those points in the comments if you like. Economics arguments about the signalling function of advertising aside, the only good it does is provide a large budget for things like TV, newspapers, web sites, etc. But is this really a good thing? Wouldn’t it be better if these things were paid for by what people wanted to spend money on?

Like a growing number of people, I use the Firefox web browser with the Ad Block  extension to hide adverts on web sites. It makes web browsing a much pleasanter experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t got it already. Since a fairly small number of people are using Firefox, and an even smaller percentage using Ad Block, web sites which rely on advertising revenue have not had much reason to worry about this. A small group of tech savvy people were able to cut out the crap and still enjoy the free content paid for by the 3% of people who actually click on the banner adverts. However, that might be set to change.

The Register has an interesting comment piece on how things might be developing (the article is mostly about the business relationship between Google, which relies on advertising, and Firefox, which is largely funded by Google). Firstly, Firefox itself is becoming much more popular: just recently it was downloaded for the 400 millionth time (which is not to say that 400m different people are running it of course). Ad Block is also growing in popularity, the developers claiming that 2.5m people are using it, and an additional 300-400k per month downloading it. So, it’s beginning to be a serious threat. One web developer, Danny Carlton, wrote a piece of software on his web pages so that if you were running Ad Block, the whole web site would be inaccessible. Of course, this is fairly easily circumvented and there is the potential for a miniature arms race there. The ad blockers are bound to win this race for much the same sort of reasons as attempts to stop people copying music and films with Digital Rights Management (DRM) fail almost before they start.

So the question is: suppose enough people were blocking adverts, what would happen? What people are worried about is that all of these free web pages will have to start charging for access. Indeed so, but that could be a fantastically good thing. With modern web technology, it would be very easy to set up a system of micropayments. You subscribe to a micropayment service where you have an account you can top up just like a mobile phone. When you visit a web site, you pay a tiny fee to view their content. This fee could be the same or less than an advertiser pays to a web site. I don’t know how much that is, but it can’t be an awful lot given that on average only 3% of visits to a website end up with the person clicking the banner ad, and even then only a small proportion of those end up with an individual making a purchase. If the technology was unobtrusive and didn’t invade privacy, this could easily be very successful.

There is a danger though. Web sites might begin to rely on more subliminal forms of advertising and PR, like the ‘advertorial’ (an ‘editorial’ that is paid for) and subtler variants which are no doubt already out there. Like product placement, this is a form of advertising that can’t be blocked. Another short term danger is that the squeeze that this will put on content producers will mean they become much less adventurous with their output, and stick to what they know works (as is perhaps already happening).

One commenter on The Register article had an alternative suggestion: a “Reasonable Advertiser Network”. That is, an index of advertisers which do not use distracting animated or Flash adverts on web pages, but relatively unobtrusive, static images which do not take up too much space on the page. Users could choose not to block these adverts, but only the ‘unreasonable’ ones. That might sound far-fetched, but it has already happened to a certain extent. Part of the commercial success of Google is down to the fact that it has a very unobtrusive and straightforward advertising scheme: certain key words cause a clearly labelled ‘Sponsored Link’ to be included in your search results. You know exactly what the advert is, how it came to be there, and it doesn’t dance around your screen and sing at you.

My preferred solution however is the death of advertising, and there are some signs that it might be coming about anyway. Newspapers are apparently very concerned that advertising revenue is drying up, as are TV stations, etc.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out, and whether or not solutions that are easy to implement on the web (like a micropayment scheme) could be extended to other mediums like TV and news.

Now over to you: how do you feel about advertising on web pages and more generally? Do you use ad blockers? Would you be happy with a micropayment scheme like the one I suggested?

Google worms its way into universities
June 12, 2007, 4:05 am
Filed under: Business, Civil Liberties, Internet, Politics, Surveillance Society

The BBC reports that Trinity College Dublin has switched its internal email system over to Google, and other universities are thinking of doing the same thing. Addresses and domain names will look the same but Google is running it behind the scenes. In the light of Google’s privacy policy recently being ranked among the worst, this raises some serious questions:

  • Will students be able to opt out of this service?
  • Will students data held by the university be given to Google as part of the deal?
  • If so, how much of it?
  • Will students get targeted advertising while at university?
  • What is the value to Google in advertising revenue of this captive audience?
  • What is the cost for the university of running its own email system?
  • What are the implications of having the university part funded by advertising?
  • Will staff email also run on Google’s systems?
  • How would we feel about schools and other public sector organisations making arrangements like this with Google?

For background on my concerns about companies holding enormous amounts of data on everyone, see my previous entry on social sorting and the surveillance society.

See also this article in Trinity’s student newspaper.

John McDonnell
May 15, 2007, 3:55 am
Filed under: Business, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

A while ago I wrote an entry on this blog about whether or not the Labour party could get my vote, including some suggestions and ideas about how you might make them electable. Anyway, Labour MP John McDonnell is contesting the Labour party leadership against Gordon Brown, and it turns out that many of his policies (summarised in the list below, and see also this document, which I’ve not yet had time to read fully) are the same as mine.

  • The withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The end to privatisation of public services.
  • A Real Living Minimum Wage of at least £7 an hour.
  • A green energy policy based on renewable power sources.
  • An increase in the Basic State Pension from £84.25 to £114 a week.
  • Defence of comprehensive education and the abolition of student tuition fees.
  • The restoration of trade union rights and civil liberties.

I haven’t yet had time to read up fully on the guy, so this is mostly just speculation on my part. It seems to me though that the only reason not to support a campaign like this is that it is a return to the bad old days when Labour couldn’t get elected (indeed, Gordon Brown made exactly this point in a debate with McDonnell). But if this is so, why is it so? I think the answer is that it’s not ‘business friendly’ which I take to mean ideologically committed to corporate interests. Is it possible to have a party that proposes some of the items on this list without being considered unfriendly to business, or is a commitment to social justice considered too strong a signal of business unfriendliness (probably not inaccurately)?

Destroy All Adverts!
January 30, 2007, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Activism, Business, Economics, Internet, Manifesto, Media, Politics

I don’t know if the nature of advertising has changed fairly recently, or if my view of it has just undergone a phase change, but over the last year my anger at the all-pervasiveness of advertising has dramatically increased. I wonder if the time has come for a campaign against advertising? So here is a tentative manifesto for such a campaign:

The case against advertising

  1. Adverts are crass and invasive – every surface is covered in adverts, they are broadcast louder than the programmes on TV, etc.
  2. The reliance on income derived from advertising distorts culture, news, and consequently politics
  3. Advertising distorts the market and encourages monopolies and oligarchies: big companies can afford to spend so much more on it than small companies
  4. It drains resources away from society without producing anything of value. Just think of the talented and creative people that could be producing something valuable who are instead thinking of ever new ways to bias our judgements.

What can we do?

  1. Prefer to buy products which you have not seen advertised.
  2. Get your news, television and so forth from advertising-free sources. For example, The New Standard and the BBC for news. Download TV programmes and films from the internet rather than watching them on TV.
  3. Use pop-up blockers and advert blockers on your web browser.
  4. If you suspect that you are the subject of a viral marketing campaign, absolutely refuse to buy anything from the company involved. This most insidious form of advertising has to be dealt with in the strongest manner possible.
  5. Mute the adverts when you watch the TV

I’m doing all of these. Any other suggestions?

November 30, 2006, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Business, Economics, Food, Free Speech, Media, Politics

Just waiting for some calculations to finish running on my computer, so I thought I’d spend the time taking the piss out of a rubbish article on CiF by Brendan O’Neill called Abolish Ofcom. He argues against the recent decision to ban the advertising of junk food during children’s TV.

First a bit of background on Brendan O’Neill. He used to be a communist of sorts, he wrote for the infamous Living Marxism magazine. He now writes right-wing libertarian guff like this. Most of his articles are a joke – including this one.

Right from the beginning, he gets things so wrong:

I’m still in a state of shock that Ofcom’s announcement last week of a total ban on junk food advertising during kids’ TV programmes did not elicit more outrage. You, like me, might not lose any sleep over the fact that McDonald’s, Coca Cola and others have been royally screwed over.

Actually, as the Telegraph mentioned in their article on this, some time ago now, McDonald’s, Coke, etc. can still advertise as brands, but not individual fatty products.

Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is based entirely on subjective criteria. Its starting point is a subjective view of certain foods as “junk”.

Er, no. As the BBC notes, it’s based on sugar, salt and fat content of the food, and Ofcom doesn’t even decide what does or doesn’t count as junk food themselves:

A Food Standards Agency ratings system will be used to assess which foods are too high in fat, sugar and salt to be advertised to children.

Back to Brendan:

And let’s not beat around the bush: they mean fries served by McDonald’s, which are less fatty than the duck a la orange dishes served in the best restaurants in the land.

If he were less generally ignorant about everything, I’d suspect that this line was included deliberately to provoke snobs like me to make comments like this. Firstly, duck a la orange? How many ways is that wrong? He’s mixing French and English and he’s got the French bit wrong. Secondly, served in the best restaurants in the land? No clue. Finally, he completely misses the major points that people don’t eat rich, fatty restaurant food like foie gras – to use an example that makes his point slightly better than he does – regularly, unlike McDonalds and Coke, and that these restaurants are not advertising on TV.

He then goes on to say that advertising doesn’t have any effect on children’s eating habits anyway:

Indeed, one academic study found that “just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising”.

Oh yeah? Then why do they spend all that money on it? 😉

Anyway, my program has finished running now so I won’t continue this tirade. I’ll just finish by pointing out that he doesn’t make the distinction between children and adults. Adults, we would presume, can make their own minds up when they see an advert. Children on the other hand are much more impressionable and even more subject to peer pressure. Despite ignoring it earlier in his article, he can’t help but recognise this distinction when he says right at the end:

… but Ofcom treats us as children who must be protected and mollycoddled by the powers-that-be…

No! Ofcom is treating children as children! Sheesh. Why do the Guardian keep publishing articles by this guy? I suppose they’re quite funny, maybe that’s it.

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November 22, 2006, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Business, Free Speech

The last week or so I’ve installed and played around with Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been sort of getting more and more pissed off with Microsoft and the other software giants: the endless restrictions on what you can do with your software, the digital rights management, the heavy legal tactics against the little guy, etc.

My experience so far is that although Linux has got a hell of a lot better since last time I used it, it’s still a long way from being something your average user would be able to deal with. To start with, the built in disk partitioning tool didn’t work for me and I ended up having to use command line tools to manually resize my WinXP NTFS partition and create a Linux one, which included counting the number of cylinders (whatever they are) in my hard disk, etc. Then I had problems with the wireless internet – the standard Ubuntu installation doesn’t have a wireless network manager which is just unforgiveable. That was a relatively easy installation if you had some idea of what you were looking for. I had to change the video drivers because the built-in ones don’t use 3D acceleration,  the sound driver because it sounded tinny. Fortunately, a bit of googling quickly finds you whatever information you need if you’re reasonably confident about tinkering about and typing things like “sudo gedit /etc/X11/xorg.conf” etc.

Now that I’ve mostly got it working, it’s pretty good but to be honest it’s a step down from WinXP. I think I shall mostly stick to using Windows but I want to be ready when MS and co. do something so annoying that I decide I can’t stand to use their software any more.

One thing that really stands out though is Xgl and Beryl – who would have thought it, wobbly semi-transparent windows and four desktops on a cube. Ingenius!

Media freedom
November 18, 2006, 4:51 am
Filed under: Business, Economics, Free Speech, Media, Politics

A few things have come my way recently about media freedom in a contemporary society. What got me started thinking about it was an article on znet by media lens co-founder David Cromwell, about the influence of advertising money on newspapers. It reminded me of a similar essay posted by Chris Shumway (now a journalist at the excellent advertising-free New Standard) on his webpage a few years ago, which got him fired from his job at WBNS. His webpage is gone now, but I found a copy of the essay here (and a more recent comment of his on the affair here).

The bit that got Shumway fired in July 2000 was:

The TV station I [worked] for allows a major bank not only to sponsor a daily financial news segment (called “Your Money”) they also get to supply the “expert” commentator (a bank official) and write the script! Each day, the bank selects a topic and faxes the newsroom a set of questions for the anchors to ask during the segment. Most of the questions refer to products and services sold by the bank; some even deal with public policy matters that directly affect the banking industry. On one particular day, our “expert” was asked about a hike in interest rates by the Federal Reserve Board. He explained that it was necessary “medicine” for the economy: an antidote for rising inflation. What he didn’t say was that banks and other lending institutions rake in bigger profits from loans when interest rates are higher. Of course, I would not expect a banker to say this on live television, but shouldn’t one of the “news” anchors have brought this up? And shouldn’t they have mentioned that the Federal Reserve Board is made up of banking representatives and that historically its policies benefit lenders and creditors (banks)? They also could have questioned his claim that the rate increase was needed to battle inflation. Many economists agree that inflation at moderate levels (say 5% or so, which is higher that we had at the time of the rate hike) is not a problem for most people, especially if it is corresponding to true wage gains. Additionally, the anchors could have mentioned that many consumer groups opposed the increase (even the National Association of Manufacturers called it “unnecessary shock treatment”). But no, our anchors did not seriously question or challenge anything our advertiser-appointed “expert” said. Instead, the anchors meekly followed orders–and the advertiser’s script–as all well trained lap dogs do.

The medialens article describes some similar things. They quote a report by FAIR stating:

The essential conflict of commercial news media was on full display when giant advertisers BP, the oil company, and Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general (, 5/24/05).

On the way they notice an interesting fact about reliance on advertising.

We noted that in his ‘Errors & Omissions’ column Keleny had omitted to mention that the quality press, including the Independent, is dependent upon advertising for around 75 per cent of its revenue. It would be irrational to claim that this has no impact on shaping the content of his newspaper.

All this is related (explicitly) to Chomsky and Herman’s 1988 propaganda model (in Manufacturing Consent). Despite the name, it describes a conspiracy-theory-free model of how the agenda of news outlets is partially shaped by government and corporate interests. Well worth reading about if you haven’t already.

Yesterday, an article by Unity at the Ministry of Truth blog pointed me towards an account in the British Journalism Review of how some journalists are influenced by MI6.

So in the light of all this, what are we to make of media freedom and trustworthiness?

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