Monday, September 24, 2007

UK economic problems.

In the last week there has been a severe failure by our government and regulatory bodies to calm jitters in the UK economy.

I saw the treasury select committee MPs grilling the head of the Bank of England, but can't help but feel they missed the point.

Northern Rock is in serious difficulty. Their balance sheet is comprised mostly of mortgage lending with a small proportion of deposits. Because of the fallout from the recent US sub-prime mortgage lending crisis the cost of inter-bank lending (which NR was more reliant on than was prudent) has risen sharply, with banks much more reluctant to lend one-another money for fear that the securities offered for the loan may be overvalued.

The select committee seemed to focus entirely on the Northern Rock situation which I see as the symptom, not the actual problem.

Northern Rock had been looking for a solution for its problems for about a month before the issues bit. The problems were directly caused by fallout from the economic problems in US. These pleas had fallen on deaf ears and the problems left to grow.

In my opinion this is what went wrong:

1) The Bank of England took an extremely hard line. They were aware of the situation with the interbank lending. Banks were keeping all their cash in case they hit problems in the near future. The Federal Reserve in America noticed a similar problem and they took action. They injected cash into the system promptly, offered banks a reduced borrowing rate and have since dropped the main interest rate by two 'notches'. Our bank sat there and did nothing. Had they improved access to short term funds I feel none of the current problems with Northern Rock and the banking sector in general would have happened.

2) Northern Rock asked the Bank for a 'lender of last resort' loan. This request was immediately made public. Mr King informed the Treasury Committee he would have rather used 'covert' lending so the bank could sort its problems without causing the large public panic causing queues of savers withdrawing their savings. Covert lending was made illegal by the EU Market Abuse Directive. I wait for the day I hear of an EU directive that is in our best interests.

3) Approximately a week before the crunch hit, Lloyds TSB wanted to buy Northern Rock. From what I have read they pulled out becuase the Bank of England refused to extend the terms of loans to Northern Rock to a buyer.

Today it looks like the Rock is struggling to find a buyer at any price! It is looking increasing likely the government will have to support it over the longer term.

Fortunately last week the B of E woke up and intervened by guaranteeing no depositors of NR would lose any savings and to offer £10 billion funds to lubricate the markets. Such a U-turn was well overdue. The Bank of England definitely neglected one of their core duties to ensure market stability. The MP committee forgot to ask them why.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Home Automation

Did you ever see programmes on the television in the 1980s and 1990s like Tomorrows World and some science fiction series? The prediction was that by the early 21st century our homes would be automated to make our lives easier. By easier I mean you wouldn't need to use a light switch to turn the lights on. After you left the room the lights would turn off automatically.

The basic concept of home automation is that your house would 'think' and know what you were doing and how you needed it to respond to any events.

Before I gave the situation any thought I assumed it would be very easy to make it happen. Burglar alarms have successfully detected movement for years. It should be easy to switch a light on instead of setting of an alarm! Right?

Well no. In an outbuilding or garden this solution would probably be enough. Someone walks into the shed at night and the lights comes on. 5 minutes later the light would go off, because the person has got the item they wanted and gone away. If movement is detected in front of your house it is nice to have a super-powerful floodlight turn on for a minute so any prospective intruder is exposed.

Now lets complicate things a bit and set up a system in a bathroom. There are two options for a sensor. One that detects the door opening, or one that detects movement in the room (please no puns). So you enter the bathroom and it is easy for it to decide it needs to put the light on. How long do you wait before switching the light off? Is the person washing their hands for 30 seconds or having 30 minutes in the bath? The movement detector isn't a very good system here. You could have a movement detector in the hall so it knows you moved in the bathroom then moved in the hall. Success you think! Problem is the computer doesn't know who moved if there is more than one person in the house.

In the lounge the problem gets worse. There is the same issue about a lack of movement. Have you gone to the pub, or are you talking or reading? But think about turning the light on. You are settled down to a good movie in the dark, and you reach on the table to pick up your drink. The system may detect the movement and turn the light on just when you didn't want it to!

One could get round this issue with more intelligence. The processing unit needs to have numerous modes. One for watching the tele when it does not turn the light on if you move. One for if you need a bath so the bathroom light doesn't time out. But hang on, now I have a switch to control the system and tame the intelligence. That means the switch behaviour wouldn't be as predictable as when it just turned a light on and off. You have to think even more 'I am about to watch the tele so I need to set the automation to TV mode'.

So you have paid £hundreds for an intelligent system. You have to think a lot more about how to use it AND you still have to control it manually.

What I havn't mentioned is the installation. All the components of the automation system need to be powered and linked together. Running special cables to all lights and sensors would be a big job. There are wireless options that use radio or mains wiring to communicate, but most of these only do one way communication. The processor will send a signal saying bathroom light on and assume it got there. To be reliable it needs to wait for a reply saying the light has been turned on, and if this is not received it must resend its instruction.

My last point is latency. I walk into the kitchen. The movement sensor picks me up when I cross its zones. It tells the computer there is movement. The computer thinks what time it is, has the sun set and what mode am I in. It decides if it needs to turn the light on and sends the signal. The light then comes on with a cool soft fade-up. Problem is by the time this is done you have got your beer out the fridge in the dark and are walking back to the lounge.

Don't get me wrong it is extremely cool to bring someone home after a lucky night in the pub and all the house lights fade on as you enter each room. You can amaze your friends by texting the system from the street to turn a light on. But it does not work. It doesn't save any hassle. It will probably save some electricity but is it worth it for the inconvenience of the lights going off three times during your evening meal?

When everybody has an embedded electronic chip in their body the system will be able to get a bit smarter and would probably work well. In the meantime assuming you don't want all your family to be chipped steer clear! You would have to wait years to save enough electricity to make a return on the investment!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Humour: Advertising slogans.

Imagine if all major retailers started making their own condoms and kept the same tag-line...

  • Sainsbury Condoms - making life taste better
  • Tesco Condoms - every little helps
  • Nike Condoms - Just do it.
  • Peugeot Condoms - The ride of your life.
  • Galaxy Condoms - Why have rubber when you can have silk.
  • KFC Condoms - Finger licking good.
  • Minstrels Condoms - melt in your mouth, not in your hands.
  • Safeway Condoms - Lightening the load.
  • Abbey National condoms - because life is complicated enough.
  • Coca Cola condoms - The real thing.
  • Duracell condoms - keep going and going.
  • Pringles condoms - once you pop, you cant stop
  • Burger King Condoms - Home of the whopper
  • Goodyear Condoms - for a longer ride go wide
  • FCUK condoms - no comment required.
  • Muller light condoms - so much pleasure, but where's the pain.
  • Halfords condoms - we go the extra mile.
  • Royal Mail condoms - I saw this and thought of you.
  • Andrex condoms - Soft, strong and very very long
  • Renault condoms - size really does matter!
  • Ronseal condoms - does exactly what it says on the tin
  • Ronseal quick-drying condoms - its dry and waterproof in 30 minutes
  • Domestos condoms - gets right under the rim!(Eeeuww!!.....)
  • Heineken condoms - reaches parts that other condoms just cannot reach
  • Carlsberg condoms - probably the best condom in the world
  • AA Condoms - for the 4th emergency service
  • Pepperami condoms - it's a bit of an animal
  • Polo condoms - the condom with the hole
  • The Manchester United Condom... One Yank and your whole world falls apart

Sunday, September 09, 2007

B of the Bang!

In January 2005 a landmark monument was unveiled in East Manchester to commemorate the Commonwealth Games which Manchester hosted extremely successfully in 2002. The monument is meant to look like a firework exploding. It was named 'B of the Bang!' after a quote by Olympic sprinter Lindford Christie saying that he started his races on the B of the Bang.

It is famous as at 56m it is the tallest sculpture in the country, and it is also installed to lean at an angle of 30 degrees. This artwork cost £1.4 million. It is intended to be a tourist attraction and to bring visitors to the area.

I drive past this sculpture regularly and all I can say is I can see nothing artistic about it. I have stared and studied it so many times to try really hard to find something about it to appreciate, but there is nothing. It is a rusty irregular eye-sore. I'm sorry, try as hard as I can I cannot see anything redeeming about this terrible over-hyped waste of public money.

For what they paid they could have at least painted it a nice colour. This special steel it is made of that develops a weather proof coating can only be called rusty. As you look along most of the spikes the welds that join the parts into a complete spike are really visible. The spikes are not evenly distributed around the central hub as a firework explotion is in the air. They look like they have been spaced into systematic groups to make installation easier.

On the subject of installation, you are probably aware that the entire sculpture is still fenced off for safety. This is because the spikes are slowly all falling off. So the compromise in spacing the spikes that stinks of ease of installation has not even made the statue secure. The welds that are visible are not that way for strength. In even light winds some of the spikes are oscillating wildly which is obviously going to speed up the failure rate.

I have already questioned some of Manchester City Council's decisions on here before but whoever payed some drugged up hippie millions to design this awful and dangerous rusty cock-up needs their head examining. Hell you can't unveil something 2 1/2 years after an event it is meant to commemorate. Dig it up now and don't waste any more money 'maintaining' it. Failing that at least paint it a better colour to hide the welds. When it was being built there was a speeded up 5 minute video of it being constructed. They should leave it recording and we can see if it falls down in less time :).