The Samovar


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?

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Farewell to Blair
June 17, 2007, 10:31 pm
Filed under: Media, Politics

I was going to do a cartoon on Blair after reading about his criticism of the media. Having read his speech though, I’ve lost the will to do so. Most of what he says is actually quite good even if it does rankle knowing about his own hypocrisy and lies.

Still, this is too funny not to quote:

The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by “impact”… an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

… today’s media… is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.

Do read the full thing though, the quote above is funny but by selection conceals what is actually not a bad point.



Terrorism: Hysteria, Control, Profit
June 15, 2007, 2:38 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Manifesto, Media, Politics, Risk, Security, Security Theater, Terrorism

We shouldn’t be afraid of terrorism.

This is something I have written about before, but never really set out my reasons in detail.

We shouldn’t be afraid

John Mueller summarises:

… the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, until 2001 far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning. And except for 2001, virtually none of these terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Indeed, outside of 2001, fewer people have died in America from international terrorism than have drowned in toilets.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, however, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the U.S. State Department began its accounting) is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning—or by accident-causing deer or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. In almost all years the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

Mueller plots this data (colours added by me to make it look better in the tiny picture):

terrorism-graph.jpg

There is a massive spike in 2001 as a consequence of the WTC attacks. Data after 2003 is slightly more difficult to come by because after 2001 the methods of collecting terrorism data changed, and some claim that they were inflated. The NCST give this shiny graph of monthly fatalities from terrorist attacks from 1998 to 2004:

fatalities98-04.jpg

The MIPT data gives this for worldwide annual terrorism fatalities 2000-2006:

fatalities00-04-mipt.jpg

For the US and Western Europe only, they give this data (I’ve not included the roughly 3000 WTC attack deaths in 2001 so that the scale of the graph is right and you can see the detail more clearly) for 1968-2007:

deathsuseurope-notwtc.jpg

The graphs indicate that terrorism is on the rise, but even taking the most pessimistic view of things the numbers are still microscopic on a global or even national scale. For comparison, in the US there are 40,000 road deaths a year, in the UK there are 3000 a year.

The upshot of all this is that based on the evidence of what has happened so far, the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is negligible. If you want to worry about being killed by something, terrorism should be one of the last things on your list.

But what if things got much worse?

It’s possible that terrorist actions could get worse in three ways:

  1. they could become much more frequent
  2. they could get much more effective
  3. they could get hold of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons

The first scenario seems to be unlikely. Terrorist attacks are actually quite easy to pull off, and yet there aren’t very many. In America, you can buy high powered guns legally. All a terrorist would have to do is buy one and go crazy in a shopping mall. If you had a large number of potential terrorists, this would be a highly effective strategy but it hasn’t happened. This suggests that the number of willing would-be terrorists is actually fairly small, or that they are generally incompetent. There’s also no particular reason to think that attacks should become much more frequent than they are. The Iraq war has certainly done a lot to increase the number of terrorist attacks worldwide, but even doubling and tripling these numbers leaves the danger tiny.

The second scenario also seems unlikely to bring any great change. Increased numbers of terrorists might mean an increase in expertise and so an increase in effectiveness, but on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, this wouldn’t make an enormous difference. The largest and most effective terrorist attack ever was the WTC attack which killed some 3000 people, but far from being an indication of a new and more effective terrorism, it was more likely a freak event that was much more effective than expected. In a video released in December 2001 (although not everyone believes it is genuine), Osama bin Laden says:

(…Inaudible…) we calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. (…Inaudible…) due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.

In other words, what they expected to achieve with the attack was a tiny fraction of what they actually managed to achieve. That said, it could also have been much worse than it was if more people had been in the buildings for example. Along these lines, it might happen that at some point in the future another terrorist plot happens to succeed as well or better than this. It’s unlikely, but even if it did happen, it still probably wouldn’t make an awful lot of difference. To put it in perspective, a disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to happen once a month before the number of deaths was the same as the number who die in car accidents every year in the US.

So the only possible scenario we really need to worry about is that terrorists might get hold of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. This is not something I know anything about, so here I’ll just quote Mueller:

Chemical arms do have the potential, under appropriate circumstances, for panicking people; killing masses of them in open areas, however, is beyond their modest capabilities… Biologist Matthew Meselson calculates that it would take a ton of nerve gas or five tons of mustard gas to produce heavy casualties among unprotected people in an open area of one square kilometer. Even for nerve gas this would take the concentrated delivery into a rather small area of about three hundred heavy artillery shells or seven 500-pound bombs. A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin nerve gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people could cause between three thousand and eight thousand deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there was a moderate wind or if the sun was out, for example—the death rate would be only one-tenth as great. Although gas was used extensively in World War I, it accounted for less than 1 percent of the battle deaths. In fact, on average it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.

Properly developed and deployed, biological weapons could indeed (if thus far only in theory) kill hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—of people. The discussion remains theoretical because biological weapons have scarcely ever been used. Belligerents have eschewed such weapons with good reason: biological weapons are extremely difficult to deploy and to control. Terrorist groups or rogue states may be able to solve such problems in the future with advances in technology and knowledge, but the record thus far is unlikely to be very encouraging to them. In the 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that had some three hundred scientists in its employ and an estimated budget of $1 billion, reportedly tried at least nine times over five years to set off biological weapons by spraying pathogens from trucks and wafting them from rooftops, hoping fancifully to ignite an apocalyptic war. These efforts failed to create a single fatality—in fact, nobody even noticed that the attacks had taken place. For the most destructive results, biological weapons need to be dispersed in very low-altitude aerosol clouds: aerosols do not appreciably settle, and anthrax (which is not easy to spread or catch and is not contagious) would probably have to be sprayed near nose level. Explosive methods of dispersion may destroy the organisms. Moreover, except for anthrax spores, long-term storage of lethal organisms in bombs or warheads is difficult and, even if refrigerated, most of the organisms have a limited lifetime.

Nuclear weapons, most decidedly, can indeed inflict massive destruction, and it is certainly reasonable to point out that an atomic bomb in the hands of a terrorist or rogue state could kill tens of thousands of people. But it may also be worthwhile to note that making such a bomb is an extraordinarily difficult task and that warnings about the possibility that small groups, terrorists, and errant states could fabricate nuclear weapons have been repeatedly uttered at least since 1947, and especially since the 1950s when the ‘‘suitcase bomb’’ appeared to become a practical possibility. It has now been three decades since terrorism specialist Brian Jenkins published his warnings that ‘‘the mass production and widespread distribution of increasingly sophisticated and increasingly powerful man-portable weapons will greatly add to the terrorist’s arsenal’’ and that ‘‘the world’s increasing dependence on nuclear power may provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.’’

So why does nobody say this?

Some people have said this sort of thing, but not many and rarely people in prominent public positions. The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently got in trouble when he said:

There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.

US Senator John McCain wrote:

Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. . . Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?

So why is the perception of the terrorist threat so out of proportion to the real threat?

Well, one reason is that we’re very bad at estimating risk. We tend to overestimate the significance of dramatic and unusual events. News reporting multiplies this effect, because by its very nature it reports the news, the unusual, not the run of the mill risks we face every day which are actually much more significant. This begins to explain it, but it doesn’t really excuse our ignorance. Terrorism has been a major world issue for almost 6 years now, plenty of time for a more realistic view to have gained acceptance.

There are all sorts of reasons why it might not have, but the one I want to focus on is that it isn’t in the interests of anyone who might have been able to lower the perception of the terror threat to have done so.

The media aren’t exactly in the business of making things sound less dramatic and exciting than they really are. It is in their interests to exaggerate the threat. Perhaps more importantly than that, it is certainly not in their interests to portray the threat rationally and calmly. How boring would that be?

Similarly, politicians have much to gain from exaggerating the threat, and much to potentially lose by being reasonable about it. If they told everyone that everything was OK and they needn’t worry, what would the reaction be next time there was a terrorist strike? It wouldn’t matter if there were only a few casualties, fitting the general prediction that terrorist attacks will occur but won’t add up to anything like the number killed by everyday threats like cars and bathtubs, they would immediately be ridiculed and voted out. Not only that, but in the immediate aftermath of an attack, doing nothing is simply not a politically viable option, even if it is actually the least worst one. Actually, I’m not at all convinced that this need be so, but being reasonable about the threat, for a politician, is decidedly the more personally difficult and risky approach.

Politicians also rely on their advisers considerably, and these advisers are typically unelected and have much to gain from the increased control that the threat of terrorism can buy. Increased powers make the job of the police easier. Huge databases on us make the jobs of civil servants easier. Increased funding makes the jobs of the secret services easier. They have everything to gain from exaggerating the threat, and the politicians listen to what they say.

Finally, there is a whole sector of the economy that produces technology for fighting the ‘war on terror’. Billions of pounds are spent on this technology, and so the companies involved have very good reason, and ample resources to spend on lobbying and exaggerating the threat.

A word on policy

Most of what the government does in response to terrorism is actually ineffective or even counterproductive. Not only are they wasting billions on this and destroying civil liberties that define the nature of our society, but they might even be making us less safe.

A couple of examples of this. In the few months after 9/11, many people in the US would drive around the country instead of taking internal flights. As a consequence, it was estimated that 1000 more people died in traffic accidents than normal for that period of time. Bad advice to avoid planes and our inability to assess risks accurately cost 1000 lives, more than a third of the death toll of 9/11 itself.

After the Tube attacks in London, a policy of random searches of bags was instituted on the New York subway. On an average day, there are 4m journeys on the NY subway, so the chance of catching a terrorist if there were one (and there hasn’t been one yet) would be tiny. Could those police officers have been used more effectively in fighting ordinary crime? Nobody has done the calculations, but it seems likely.

Some have argued that although these measures are strictly speaking quite ineffective, they might have a deterrent effect. Terrorists might be put off from trying to blow us up because of the danger of getting caught. But is this really a sustainable point of view? Someone who is willing to blow themselves up in killing a few people would be put off by a tiny chance of having their bag searched? What would they have to lose? Even if their bag was searched, they could set off their bomb as the police officer approached.

What about the extreme risks associated to, say, a nuclear terrorist attack. Surely it’s worth doing anything we can to avoid that? The thing is, for new laws and powers to be effective, two things would both have to happen. Firstly, the terrorists would have to have the expertise and materials in the right place to pull of a nuclear attack that worked. That’s unlikely, as we’ve already seen. On top of that, the police would have to be able to stop this plot using the new powers, but not using the old powers. Bruce Schneier claims that in all cases of foiled terrorist plots so far, they were foiled using traditional methods of investigation rather than new anti-terror powers. Most of the time both of these things aren’t going to happen – either the terrorists wouldn’t be able to pull off the nuclear attack, or the police would have been able to foil the plot using the powers they already had.

Let’s think about some numbers. There’s no way of working out these probabilities exactly, so these numbers are just to give an idea. Suppose there’s a 1 in 100 chance that the terrorists had the materials and expertise to pull off a terrorist attack, and that there’s a 1 in 100 better chance that the police can stop it with the extra powers. This would mean that these powers would be effective only 1 in 10,000 times. If the chances were both 1 in 10 rather than 1 in 100, the new powers would be effective only 1 in 100 times.

The point is that when we’re thinking about whether or not to pass new laws or grant new powers to the police, we shouldn’t be thinking that these laws will stop a nuclear attack therefore they are justified even though they’re extreme, we should be thinking that these new laws might help to stop a relatively unlikely terrorist attack that might have been stopped anyway.

Is that worth undermining the nature of our society for?

Absolutely not.

(Note: this entry was edited slightly from the original posting to improve the last section, but no substantive changes were made.)



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?



Waiting
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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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 (AdAge.com, 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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