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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Random Comedy Kernels

Being cursed with an over-creative talent for comedy, I am periodically surfeited with ideas for articles or sketches that I do not have the capacity to exploit. The period in question is about 14 days, or one half of a lunar month. As a result, every fortnight, or thereabouts, I will disgorge into this blog a selection of comedic nuggets for you, my readership, to refine and bring to market as jewels of the comedy world.

The agreeable economists. Conventionally economists are thought to argue and disagree. Cliché has it that ten economists will have at least eleven different opinions on any subject. In this sketch ten economists fall-over each other in their fawning attempts to agree. This could optionally be set as a meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee.

Obama junior. Barrak Obama's son talks with his young friends in the portentious manner used by his father for major speeches.

Father Asereht. The opposite in all respects to Mother Theresa.

Jeremiah Clarkson. A Babylonian reviewer of chariots, farm carts, etc.

Lab-Con coalition. The UKIP gains so many of the available seats at the next general election, and the Liberal Party so few, that the Labour and Conservative parties are forced into an uncomfortable coalition. They put on a show of unity of unparalleled insincerity.

Disclaimer. While the ideas presented above are the scrapings from the bottom of Prof. Den Sushing's brain barrel, the Professor nonetheless reserves the right to exploit them himself if he runs so desperately short of inspiration that they seem a better bet than all his other corny musings.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Conversations with...Steve Jobs

Diary entry 21st November 2008

Steve is over for the weekend. His wife has taken the kids to her mother's, and he fancied some time with his old mates. Although I'd other things planned, he nags me to go with him to Tottenham Court Road to see what laptops are selling, which is one of his ways of keeping abreast of trends. I take a camera because I know he'll want me to snap any designs that catch his eye. There’s a particularly slim Korean pc he has me photograph from every angle until we’re thrown out of the store by a security man. On the bus home he’s ranting about 'the Koreans stealing a march on us', and begs me to show him the pictures on the Leica.  Although we’re sitting right under a light at the back of the bus, the pictures are bright and clear on the preview screen. Steve forgets about the Koreans for a bit and says 'Wow those pictures are sharp.'
'So they should be', I say, 'the camera's twenty thousand bucks, and they're sixteen megapixel pictures.'
Steve's got money coming out of his ears, so he ignores the price of the camera, but the pixel count gets to him. 'Sixteen megapixel? Wow!' He snatches the camera out of my hands. 'How do they get sixteen megapixels in a display like that?' and he lifts his specs to peer at the little screen at the back of the Leica.
I grab the camera back before he breaks it and say: 'Don't be daft. It's the pictures that are sixteen meg, not the screen.'
Steve gives me that old familiar look that tells me he's lost, so I explain that the number of pixels in the screen is less than the number in the picture, and I tell him a bit about dithering and the other techniques in the algorithms that map the larger picture to the smaller display, and so on, but being a big picture man he asks 'why don't they just make a 16 megapixel display?'
'Because it would be pointless,' I say. 'The eye can only see so much detail. As you increase the pixel density you reach a point at which it exceeds the resolving power of the retina.’
‘Gee I never thought of that,’ Steve says. I stare at the ceiling of the bus, and blow a deep frustrated breath through my nose. Who’d believe it?

Monday, 26 August 2013

New Mis-selling Scandal

Just when we hoped we'd seen the last of the mis-selling scandals, in which un-necessary financial products had been foisted on an exploited public, new research indicates that mis-selling may be rife across the United Kingdom. I will today, with the full support of the Consumer Association, be calling upon government to act immediately and to introduce new measures to expose and address the latest symptoms of what appears to be a pandemic of mis-selling. The horrifying cases that have come to light include:

A man who was systematically exploited over a sustained period, being sold in total 23 pairs of cufflinks at various retail outlets between 1998 and 2012. When questioned it became clear that the man had the text-book two arms, and only ever needed to wear one pair of cufflinks; the remaining 22 pairs were entirely redundant.

A woman now in her thirties who had been duped into paying for no fewer than 13 mobile phones over 15 years. The provider of the phones admits that the woman has only one 'SIM card', and moreover they transferred the SIM card from each phone to its successor every time they sold her a new one. Tests have proved that each of the old phones (all of which were in a drawer in the woman's bedroom) is still capable of making and receiving calls with the SIM inserted. Even allowing for the remote possibility that the woman might have occasion to use two phones simultaneously (one for each ear), she has been sold at least 11 mobile phones more than she is capable of using.

Estimates made by researches at the EDSRF suggest that the mis-selling could have amounted to £6.8 trillion over the last 10 years, or around one third of GDP. Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has supported my call for government action, explaining that he is sickened by Tory fat cats earning huge bonuses while the public is systematically exploited. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has yet to comment on the scandal.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Early Clarkson

The 1980s were bleak years for the BBC, arid, sterile, uninspired. A dearth of talent was the cause, the big names from the 70s gone, lured to the commercial channels. Lord Reith took the unusual measure of starting a school, to be led by me, a BBC outsider, to hothouse the development of new talent. It would be some years before the raw young hopefuls that applied for the limited places at the school could be turned into a ratings engine, but Reith was far-sighted as ever.
My role in the renaissance of the BBC went unreported for many years. I had made confidentiality a condition of accepting the task, fearing  the effect that public knowledge of my involvement might have on the value of a five-year call option for commercial TV shares that featured strongly in my portfolio at the time. As a result I gained no credit for the turn around, but there was reward enough in seeing those raw recruits refined into emerging stars: Laurie, Fry, Saunders, French, Coogan… you know all the names.
I was reminded of another of my little band of mentees this morning, when clearing some old files from the attic I saw the review below, which was one of Clarkson’s early efforts, pre-dating his time at the school. He was lucky to get in, as the assessment panel was united in the view that he was a complete duffer, but my instinct was otherwise, and I had my way. Over the frustrating years of coaching that followed, I paid a high price for my high-handedness with the panel, and more than once I wished I had accepted their recommendation.  I may have some more of his old work lying around somewhere, but here’s one to be getting on with.  He had some mad idea that light aircraft would become such common possessions that a television series might be made about them. I thought cars would be a safer bet.

Light Aircraft Group Test

Jeremy Clarkson
The three light aircraft in this test are the Cessna 172, the Beechcraft Havanna, and the Piper Wasp. The Cessna is made in America. The other two are made their as well.

The Cessna has one engine at the front. The Beechcraft and the Piper have two engines each, each engine being on each side of the aircraft on the wings. All the engines use kerosene instead of petrol. The Cessna has two blades on its propeller. The Beechcraft has four on each engine, and the Piper has three on each engine.

The Cessna has four seats. The Beechcraft has eight seats and the Piper has two seats. The Piper seats are nicer than the Beechcraft seats, but the Cessna seats are the nicest.

I like the tyres on the Pier best, as the tyres on the other planes look too skinny.

The Beechcraft has the most dials, but the dials on the Piper are a much nicer colour. All three planes have quite a lot of dials though, much more than cars do.

The Beechcraft will go the farthest. It will go 1800 aero-nautical miles on one tank at a cruising attitude of 5,000 American feet. The Piper will go 1,500 miles, and the Cessna will go 1,369 miles.


It's not easy to choose between these three planes on points, but I’d say that if you want a plane with just one engine then the Cessna is probably the best choice, especially if you like nice seats. Otherwise, if you want two engines go for the Beechcraft or the Piper.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


The Essay den Sushing Foundation accepts no responsibility in law or otherwise for the content of the classified advertisements below. To contact an advertiser leave their box number and your email address as a comment below.


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Restricted. Parts list for Type 93 torpedo (Current RN model). Provided in clear. Some water damage. £50 or part ex w.h.y. Box 5302.
Unclassified. Of interest to collector, rare draft of unpublished Diffie-Hellman critique of RSA. 300Euro. Box 5317.
(Top Secret). Details of datagrams used to salt password encryption hashes for Chinese internal security systems. $3m. No offers. Box 5393.
Unclassified. Encrypted address book believed to be ex Julian Assange. Cypher key missing, hence  reduced to £25. Offers considered. Box 5402.
Top Secret. Memory stick copy of hard drive from David Miranda lap-top . Genuine ex- Met Police. First to see will by. A steal at £495. Box 5408.
No classification. Decryption service. Any code cracked. No cipher too short. Call for prices. Box 5411.


Top Secret $300 per line
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Copy deadline. Noon (GMT) on Wednesdays for publication Saturday. Cash payments only, to EDSF, PO Box 0001, Nassau, Bahamas.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bo Xi Lies

The following statement was issued today by solicitors McBeeny, O'Shea, and Durmin (LLP) on behalf of Essay Den Sushing.

Professor Den Sushing has asked us to make clear to his readership and to the wider public that he denies categorically having received any bribe, kick-back, perk, back-hander, tip, sweetener, or any other form of illegal or unethical inducement from the Chinese former government official Bo Xi Lai. Payments made by the Chinese government to the charity established and run by Professor Den Sushing* were just that- charitable donations to a good cause, made 'in gratitude' for the Professor's contribution to Chinese economic policy development. No further statement will be made upon the matter, either by the Professor or by us.

*The Essay Den Sushing Research Foundation, Nassau, Bahamas- Ed

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Frack it Yourself drill bit review

Here's the next in a series of product reviews for the FIY (Frack it Yourself) community. Today's offering for FIY-ers is the new 'Kaldera' range of drill bits from Smiths, a subsidiary of the multinational Schlumberger. These bits are ideal for the first timer wanting to frack on a small scale in the back garden say, and are good for drilling down to around 2,000 metres..


The new Kaldera range continues the traditional three-cone theme that traces its roots to a patent (since expired) awarded to Howard Hughes (also since expired) in the 1920s, so it's a proven formula. But that's not to say it's outdated. The Kaldera is brimming with up-to-the-minute features, including new elastomera inserts that can increase 'time on bottom' by as much as 120 hours. Given that running costs for a typical FIY drilling rig can be upwards of $100,000 per day, that could mean quite a saving.

The Achilles heel of the design is the lack of a choice of colours- only olive drab being available at present. If other Smiths launches are anything to go by, we can expect a white version to be announced for the Christmas market. In the meantime you'll have to spray it yourself if you want some other colour.


As with most other bits, the Kaldera is a bugger to move by yourself. Depending on the diameter of the bit (the range spans from 6 inches, to 22.5 inches), the weight can be anything from 140 to 1,632 kilograms.


We loaded a 10 inch model (with the optional diamond inserts) on the Den Sushing test rig at the weekend, and plotted the results with the Hanworth HN4 data-logger. The Kaldera showed a remarkable improvement over the outgoing Smiths 'Mudsucker' model, logging a class-leading 8.9 score over the full range of test strata. (For more detailed results, please add your email address as a comment below). The only weakness of the bit was a tendency to wander more than most when shales of a high calcinity were being bored. We've reported the observation to Smiths who say that it is a 'known attribute' of the design, and is 'being considered'.

Noise, Vibration and Harshness

This was another area where the Smiths engineers have excelled, obviously benefitting from a transfer of know-how since the take-over by Schlumberger. You really could have the friends round for a barbie while letting this baby drill in the background, and they'd never notice a rumble. Of course, the real benefit is not so much operator comfort as minimising the risks that the neighbours might peer over the fence in search of the source of 'that odd noise', and before you know it they are blaming you for their stunted rhubarb.


A fine effort by the boys at Smiths, well deserving a 9.3 out of 10. Aside from the wandering in the high calcinity shales, our only niggle was the lack of a direct upload to Facebook from the optional 8Mpixel camera. To share interesting strata with your friends you have to upload images manually from the data-logger. Come on Smiths, get with the times!

Japanese in a spin over radioactivity leaks

I sympathise with the tendency of the editorial panel of Today* to squeeze into their programme more news reports by reducing the detail associated with any one of them. But I condemn the practice when taken to such an extreme that some essential ambiguity remains in the mind of the average listener owing to the absence of one or more crucial details from the reported material.

Such a nefandous transgression arose today in connection with the latest leak of ‘radioactive water’ (sic) from the Fukoshima nuclear power plant which was ‘crippled’ last year  by the inundating sea after an offshore earthquake.  We were told on Today today that owing to the high levels of radioactivity, the teams of nuclear engineers struggling to contain the leak had to be ‘rotated’, clearly leaving the listener confused and anxious about whether the teams were working  on a rota or were actually spinning.  I will be writing to the BBC board later today to demand that a clarification be broadcast on Today tomorrow. In the meantime, an informal clarification follows for those too agitated to wait for an official version. To the physicists amongst my broad readership, I apologise for the statement of the obvious that follows.

It is common practice for workers exposed to a localised nuclear hazard to spin while working. Although there are drawbacks (nausea and disorientation being the worst), they are outweighed by the benefit, which is that the radioactive emissions entering the body are spread thinly across the entire surface of the body rather than being concentrated in one spot, thus prolonging the time for which the worker can be exposed to the emissions while remaining within safe levels of exposure.

Owing to the random temporal distribution of radioactive decay the period of the spinning has to be short compared with the half-life of the elements involved. At Fukoshima it is clearly not the water itself that is radio-active, but various contaminants including Cobalt 98, Uranium 7, and Ytturbium 52. The International Centre for the Management of Nuclear Incidents publishes tables of data from which a suitable periodicity can be readily determined taking into account the relative concentrations of the various contaminants. My own estimates suggest that a safe speed of rotation for the Fukoshima workers would be between 8 and 14 rpm.

I can now deal with the two remaining questions that I Imagine most of you still have in mind. The dizziness and nausea arising from the rotation are minimised by dosing the workers with nefandril, at a rate of 2-3mg per kg of body mass (a similar dose to that used to treat sea-sickness or the side effects of labrynthitis). Accurate and reliable monitoring of the spread of exposure across the body is achieved using a circumferential dosimeter; this is identical in function to single-point dosimeters, and is actually composed of them, packaged into strips with Velcro surfaces so they can be straightforwardly strapped around the waist.                                                                                             

*A daily current affairs programme on the BBC domestic radio channel known as ‘Radio 4’ – Ed.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The outgoing Chief Rabbi

Distracted by news on Radio 4 of some pronouncement by Lord Sacks, described as the 'outgoing' Chief Rabbi. What does that say about the BBC's editorial policy that they should choose to stress the attribute of extroversion in a chief rabbi. Sure, you'd think it would be a sine qua non for a post like that. Granted, some level of introspection would come in handy too, when wrestling with doctrinal interpretations and the like, but you couldn't have some mumbling introvert in the job. Think of a circumcision blessing; you need someone with presence, with the charisma to give the boys something to remember the day by.

Quantum leery

You hear so much rubbish about quantum theory. No, that’s not sounding right. Start again…
You read so much rubbish about quantum theory. No, still not sounding right. Lean back a bit in chair to lend some mental distance from the words. Got it…

You hear and read so much rubbish about quantum theory. When I did the first PhD only physicists, mathematicians and a few theoretical chemists had heard of quantum theory, and none of them pretended to understand it. Now it’s known to economists, TV presenters, lifestyle gurus, artists, and any sort of faux intellectual, and they’d all have you believe they understand it. You can even read it in those crank books, with some idiot suggesting that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle accounts for your mood swings, while the superposition of states explains why you can never quite make up your mind about the new wallpaper.  

To put the matter straight I’m about to publish the latest book, where I take you through quantum theory bit by bit so even your thick old granny could follow it. It’s to be called ‘Quantum Theory in 66,261 Easy Steps’. Hardback copies signed by the author are available for a small premium. Leave your email address as a comment below.


Frack it yourself

The peace of the Sussex countryside was shattered again yesterday by battles between police and protestors, the latter objecting to the aims of a certain business to make huge profits from 'fracking', the process by which fuel gas may be liberated from deep in the earth by the injection of water under immense pressure.
I can see both sides of the argument.
On the one hand, the gas is there for the taking, the world is running short of it, money can be made from liberating it, and man has the ingenuity and drive to conquer the obstacles to such liberation.
On the other hand, why should one company make all the money while the rest of us have to put up with earthquakes, flames from the taps, stunted rhubarb, and all the other side effects?
To a person such as myself, with the detached perspective of the scientist, the instincts of the entrepreneur, and the problem-solving capabilities of the... the.., well with good problem solving capabilities, the answer is clear. FIY, or frack it yourself. Why not? If the job is done on a small scale the technical challenges are not that great, and certainly not beyond your average British handyman.[Used metaphorically to include handywoman - Ed.]

Perhaps the most risky aspect of the work is the initial seismological study to determine whether the gas is present in sufficient abundance to warrant the frack, since it is an entirely speculative exercise, and your are unlikely to be able to take the bits of your DIY seismograph back to Maplins for a refund.

Women's Glib

My regular readers (as if there were any other type) know there is not a single sexist cell in my body. I have been an indefatigable champion of gender equality, often working to the point of exhaustion for the cause. But sometimes it feels like I'm banging my head against the proverbial brick wall. Only today on Today I hear that in Britain the basic salaries earned by women executives are on average 25% less than those earned by 'their male counterparts'. What's worse, the bonuses earned by those same women are 50% less than those earned by the men. I mean, how can I be expected to champion your rights, women of the world, when you can't even make the effort to earn as much as the men? Come on ladies, pick up those skirts. Let's go out there and earn those bonuses!

Monday, 19 August 2013

BBC makes a hash of it

In the end, though, it was the Chinese hackers after all, not the schema mis-design, that brought a close to the whole sorry venture. The idiots developing the web interface for the pundit management system had used a plain unsalted hash (italics signifying disbelief) for encoding the session cookies! The Chinese hackers must have thought it was 年節. [Nian, the Chinese equivalent of Christmas- Ed.] So you can guess what happens. Chinese hackers get to hear of trial of strategic pundit management system by ideological arch enemy the BBC. Chinese hackers discover the plain unsalted hash (almost put it in italics again, such is lingering disbelief about stupidity of it) that has been used to encode the session cookies. Chinese hackers take about five nanoseconds to decipher the unsalted hash (not really deciphering, just looking it up in a hash table).  Chinese hackers know huge anti-BBC PR opportunity when they see one. Chinese hackers patiently wait for suitable article to be aired on 'Today', then Chinese hackers switch IP addresses of pundits. Ensuing chaos as follows... 

Schema Karma

There are some bright kids in IT, I'll grant you; but it sometimes seems to me that they don't and can't have the perspective that old timers like Brookesy, Gatesy and the rest of us would have for spotting likely problems in a major software development. I'd hardly heard that BBC pundit project explained before I was thinking: 'schema!'.

The great thing... the really great thing in fact... about the Rollodex system we'd implemented at the BBC for managing the Radio 4 pundits was its schema. Codd laughed when I described it (I had that sabbatical at the IBM research labs, remember), but what did he know? That schema was gloriously, fabulously, over-complete: the thing was hardly normalised at all. Take that business at The Shard the other day.  'Unauthorised climbing of' would appear in the Rollodex for The Shard as it did in the Rollodexes for thousands of other newsworthy buildings. Thousands of times a junior schema clerk would have written those words, but what of it? It was a labour well spent if it allowed the right pundit to be recruited at virtually no notice. And I can just imagine some young turk of a schema architect sketching out the designs for the new system, probably something in fifth-normal form, or even some higher level of abstraction, without realising for a moment that the over-complete nature of what went before it was the essence  of what was needed. That's why the thing worked, dammit! (Thumps desk with side of fist for emphasis.) How else did we run the whole thing with just a few dozen schema clerks and a Grade 3 admin assistant?

Anyway, it all came out (in the wash) when the project came before the Public Accounts Committee. I'd been asked to attend as an advisor, and could have predicted most of what emerged. The schema business, for instance. Aside from the schoolboy error of normalising (and to quite high forms at that), they'd overlooked the requirement for nesting! The data architect admitted that the first inkling he'd had that nesting would need to be supported was when listing to 'Today' on the drive to work, and hearing a commentator praising the trials of the new pundit system. A pundit of pundits! Well, it was the 'set of all sets' problem over again, that had given poor Bertrand Russell a nervous breakdown when he and Whitehead were sweating over Principia Mathematica. Of course, the entire schema had to be refactored. The so-called data architect, when grilled about the normalisation error by Margaret, confessed that they'd 'done it to save money on data capture'. Ha!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Punditry Problems Proliferate

It seems that our investigation into the latest scandal at the BBC has been timely. Regular readers will be aware that via my contacts at Bush House I have discovered that over £100m has now been squandered on an ill-conceived project to replace the trusty Rollodex system that for almost five decades has underpinned the selection of pundits for the 'Today' programme on the BBC channel known as Radio 4.
The vision for the project was revolutionary, I admit; in fact one could say breath-taking. It was intended to work entirely in real-time. A feed from the editorial scheduler would provide the script for the topic that was next to be discussed on air. A neural network would interpret the script to identify the essence of its subject matter. That essence would be coded as a set of search criteria intended to  identify potentially relevant pundits. The actual choice of a pundit would be made via an auction. Interested pundits would stand by their PCs at home, with proximity sensors distinguishing those present from those who had gone to make a coffee or do the Sudoku in the loo. The present pundits would each be allowed to make an online bid, and a preferred pundit  would be selected by an algorithm that balanced lower bid prices against higher scores of relevance for experience. The preferred pundit would participate in the radio programme via Skype. Fair enough conceptually, but as we old timers know, not so straightforward in practice. Quite apart from the Chinese hackers, there was the schema to consider...

Not the Chinese Hackers

Complaints were received at the command hub this morning about slow download speeds from a parishioner trying to view the minutes of the September 2011 full Parish Council meeting. Although they were published almost two years ago I was sure that the ‘911’ minutes were not materially larger in data volumes than any other month’s. (Regular readers will recall my analysis of the variation in the volume of the Parish Council minutes, which showed that, apart from a tendency to dip in August, all were of comparable size within the applicable statistical norms.) It took me no time to realise, therefore, that the entire website might be running slow, a conjecture  I was able to prove in minutes by running the suite of performance test scripts that I’d produced on holiday last year, as described in the January blog (the scripts, that is, not the holiday). Fearing another 'denial of service' attack by the Chinese government hackers, I lost no time in checking the firewall logs, running an automated d-scan of the enabled FTP ports, and all the other checks you’d expect to see under parallel circumstances. The figures spoke for themselves- not the merest spike in workload (allowing for the usual transients), so clearly no DOS attack in progress. Which left the one obvious other explanation for the slow download experienced by the unhappy parishioner- that hoary old bug (or ‘feature’ as Microsoft prefers to call it) of the NTS file management tree index reset.

I can still remember those days, back in ’86, when I, along with a handful of other luminaries (some no longer with us, sadly) were kicking around ideas and options for what was later to become NTS, although in those days it was just a part of the embryonic operating system we were developing for the soon-to-be-launched IBM ‘PC’, a DOS of a different sort. Gatesy was full of ideas for using a binary chop as the basic indexing method for the identification and retrieval of logical disk segments. For me and the others it seemed a nutty idea from the off. I could see that at least a quadtree approach was needed, or perhaps even a higher dimensionality, and we had a go with the whiteboard pens to sketch out the shortcomings in his thinking. But you know what Bill’s like- a few high-pitched screeches, stamps of the feet and all the toys are thrown out of the pram We gave in to him then, as we’ve always done since, and lived to regret it, as we’ve always done since.

 Anyway, a few hundred extra GB of ram did the trick. I’d had them knocking round since I did that upgrade of the web-server motherboard to a terra-bus config, so it was just five minutes to plug them in, check the cooling fins were making proper thermal contact, and launch a dynamic reboot with the SYS=MAINTAINED flag set to keep the website up while the co-processors re-started. Tested the 911 minutes myself. Download was under 3 seconds from start to finish, with 0.037s latency. Cloud computing? You can keep it.

Friday, 16 August 2013

New Scandal at the BBC

A few calls to Bush House have confirmed that a scandal of international significance is about to burst from under the heavy lid that BBC executives have been ganging together to sit upon for the last few months. It seems that without taking advice from me, or from any other expert who could have foreseen their folly, the BBC had launched a foolishly ambitious IT project to replace the trusted Rollodex system that for many decades had underpinned the use of pundits on Radio 4's 'Today' programme.

Looking back through the archives I see that the project was launched with the usual fanfares. Kim Lawrance, then the overpaid 'Director of Punditry' for the BBC, had pompously declared that 'The acquisition, development and retention of punditry talent is an important capability for the BBC. Today we are launching an exciting new project to develop a world class system for the management of punditry talent.'

Then began the feeding frenzy for the 'Big 5' consultancies. Partners in those organisations, who had for months been speculatively lunching senior BBC managers, now began their insidious work. It would have started with a few tentative nibbles, a design study here, a feasibility study there, an options appraisal maybe, or a proof of concept; perhaps a health check on the readiness of the BBC's project management office.  Those initial tasters would spawn recommendations for more substantial pieces of work, a menu of larger courses for the Big 5 to guzzle on; and those in turn would generate even more opportunities, so that eventually the project had bloated to an obscene consulting banquet of Hogarthian excess. Cohorts of young, clever, but inexperienced and poorly guided analysts and programmers were allocated to the work, booking hour after hour of expensive but unproductive time to the under-managed budget for the project.

The estimates for the work rose from an initial £230,000 to £90million, causing the project to be classed as ‘strategic’ within the BBC, and all those involved in its (mis-) management to be promoted by an average of 3.7 salary increments. Kim Lawrance, by then the even-more-overpaid 'Director of Punditry' for the BBC, declared pompously 'The acquisition, development and retention of punditry talent is a strategic capability for the BBC’. As the project grew larger and larger, its purpose grew less and less clear, and more and more effort was absorbed by pointless pseudo-work. It’s a depressing story, and one that some of us have heard countless times before: the more people you put on a project, the more time they waste. I remember explaining the underlying principle to young Fred Brooks (as he was back then) when he was struggling with that /360 development that was driving Watson round the bend at IBM. I think he wrote a book about it.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Pundits at 8 O'clock

One of the challenges for someone like me who attracts a large international following to their blog is to know when and how to deal with UK matters that might seem a tad parochial to those a long way overseas. Ordinarily, as you know, my posts tend to range over matters of a genuinely international significance, that can be truly said to matter to all right-thinking mankind (and womankind, I don't need to add). But I am stung today to act against my habits by a pundit-ridden feature on  'Today', a daily current affairs programme on the BBC channel known as Radio 4. That programme has steadily diminished in stature over the years, with the ratio of factual news to speculative comment having gone from near infinity forty years ago to virtually zero today. The cause of the decline of the programme has been an increasing reliance by its editors on the use of pundits to fill the gaps in airtime arising from a shortage of factual journalism.

Today's procession of pundits on Today included two who were supposedly experts on economics (!), one on women's rights, one on dementia, two on fast food, one on the changes in the popularity of names for babies, one on art prices, two on the career of Dolly Parton, one on the declining population of lop-eared bats, two on blueberries used as super-food, and the one on climbing The Shard. It was the mindless comments of that latter pundit which caused me to swipe the radio off the mantelpiece with my left elbow in a gesture of extreme disgust.

The Shard, for the benefit of my overseas fans, is now the tallest building in London. We don't go much for sky-scrapers here, so The Shard to my cultured eyes is a tacky and intrusive feature on the otherwise restful skyline of our capital. This morning the commuters in that part of town were struck to see four tiny human figures struggling up the outside of the building dragging a banner that called for more-humane treatment of battery hens, ironically drawing comparisons with the poor idiots cooped-up on the inside. As a publicity stunt it had the intended effect, and within a few hours a sizeable clot of outside-broadcast vans had blocked the nearby streets to film the protest and beam it via satellite to who knows what parts of the globe.

Whether the BBC had their own team on site, or were repackaging the efforts of others received via the wire, I cannot say, but within minutes of the news breaking, the acting chairman of the London Mountaineering Club was being quizzed on Today about the challenges of climbing the Shard. According to my records, the north end of Hampstead Heath, at around 440 feet above mean sea level,  is the highest point in London, which says much for the likely limits of the experiences of the London Mountaineering Club. I mean, it's probably like asking the Himalayan Underground Train Appreciation Society to comment on the Tube. Anyway, this pundit cited the height of The Shard as one of the difficulties faced by the climbers, and went on insightfully to suggest that the degree of difficulty presented by the ascent would depend on whether there were toe and finger holds at sufficiently short intervals up the structure. Thanks heaven for the man- we'd have been puzzling over it for hours were it not for his penetrating analysis.

You might wonder how it is that the BBC can find a pundit at what seems to be a moment's notice on seemingly any topic. In the days when I worked at Bush House it was achieved with a system of Rollodexes. To find a pundit to comment on the climbing of the Shard by publicity seekers, you would first search the master index Rollodex for 'Structures', which would present a reference number of one of an extremely large number of secondary Rollodexes , the one containing the list of newsworthy man-made structures. Searching that secondary Rolllodex under S for 'Shard (The)' would then present the reference number for one of an exponentially larger number of tertiary Rollodexes, the one to do with The Shard. You would now be nearing the end of your research efforts, since flicking round to the 'U's would rapidly lead you to 'Unauthorised climbing of', where you would find a list of potential pundits presented in order of their fee rate for appearances (from lowest to highest). The fingerprints, pencilled under-linings, and other smudge marks on the card would clearly show that only those near the top of the list were ever contacted, as the BBC in those days was a lot more cost conscious than it is today. Of course, mastering the structure of the inter-relationships between the various Rollodexes- or the 'schema' as we technical people say- was the key to proficiency, and you could rise rapidly in those days from a Pundit Researcher 8 (the first rung on the ladder of  pundit research) to Pundit Researcher 5 (equivalent to the BBC General Manager 2 grade) by passing the Schema Analysis Examination with a grade of Beta Plus or above. I don't know how the BBC arranges the corresponding matters today, but I will casually grill a few contacts at the Beeb and let you know.

Mark marks my words

Carney called this morning. With the Monetary Policy Committee looming I guessed what it was about, but he took his time getting to it. We'd met at a hockey match when he was a student, with him in goal and me ripping rents in the back of his net with supersonic swipes of my stick. He'd tried his best, but nine times out of ten the puck was past him before he'd reacted, while I was high fiving with the team mates as another score went on the board. That said he was gracious enough not to resent the pasting, and was all ears in the bar afterwards when I was slagging off Keynes and the others. So this morning he calls me and asks how the kids were, and so on, and had I seen the latest paper by Fullerman on derivative-backed currency swaps (Had I? As if.), and so on, until he brought the talk round to interest rates. It was smoothly done, and made it seem the most natural thing in the world that I should give him my opinion on where the rates should be pegged without him having sunk to asking for it. I'd have told you exactly how he'd gone about it, but I was doing a killer Sudoku at the time, so I wasn't  paying that much attention.