57: Sun - The Gentle (The Penetrating, Wind) 7: Shih - The Army

The Uncarved Block

[Last update: 2017-01-19T22:48:56Z] [7 articles in total]

I shouldn't have to explain this to you, but...

One person's struggle to buy food at Newark Liberty International airport

I shouldn't have to explain this to you but...

“That isn't a falafel sandwich. It's some hummus and some pieces of pitta bread."

"Yeah, but you ordered the falafel sandwich."

"I did. That's not a falafel sandwich though."

"See, it says here. You ordered the falafel sandwich."

"Yeah. That doesn't have falafel. And it's not a sandwich."

She looks from the printout to the plate a few times in disbelief. A woman at the next table is trying to attract her attention to get the hummus she obviously ordered, but my server is not the type to be so easily swayed. This isn’t the first technical hitch in the delivery of my meal either. Before the absence of sandwich I was brought a bowl of soup but no spoon. After asking three times they handed over a teaspoon. Now there is a brief impasse after which the non-sandwich is taken away. Time passes. I’m sitting in a restaurant/bar in Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey. Which, you know. New Jersey. But at least I’m leaving.

The setup in this particular place is that there is an iPad at each table which you use to order and pay. I have a headache and they're playing loud Cuban music. The food is not at all cheap, but the whole iPad schtick means they know precisely who ordered what and presumably is so they can get away with not paying their staff- hence the prodigiously awful service.

It’s spring and there’s enough snow falling for me not to be able to really see the runway even though I’m right in front of a window looking directly at it. Planes nearby have snow gathering in drifts on their wings. Other planes seem to be landing and taking off, which is good because I don’t really want to stay in New Jersey.

"Hi. I'm still waiting for a falafel sandwich."

"I thought it was brought to you. "

"No, you brought hummus. And I told you it wasn't a falafel sandwich. Then you took it away."

"I thought it was brought to you. Lemme check."

"You can see that nothing was brought to me. I don’t have any plates. And my cutlery is unused."

"Lemme check, I thought it was brought to you."

She moves diagonally by one table, remaining in my field of view and starts ostentatiously wiping down a table with one hand while texting on her phone with the other. She wants to make it as clear as possible by her actions that she has OTHER THINGS TO DO and is most certainly not in any way checking for my sandwich. I redirect some wine that was ordered by the guy next to me.

Eventually my food comes without her “help". My knife is made of bendy plastic and when I use it to push a piece of lettuce onto my fork it snaps in half for airline safety reasons.

When life gives you lemons (or not)

Drinking on my own

They checked 3 times that I wanted lemon (not cucumber) in my second $38 Hendricks and tonic even though I very obviously had lemon in my first one. Then they brought cucumber anyway. The obscene price and the cucumber and lemon thing are par for the course here but they are now trying to charge me a second time for the drink I already paid for. I give them the receipt showing I paid for that one.

Settling the bill for this drink has already taken over 10mins with three staff squinting at the machine, my card and the receipt. And I'm not done yet.

During the process I confirm my name twice while they stare in amazement at my credit card. Probably not everyone has credit which stretches to two drinks in this place.

The bar is very full. I can only assume everyone else is stuck here still trying to settle up for drinks they bought days or even weeks ago. Lots of people seem to have Hendricks and tonic (with cucumber) which is a fair indication I'm onto something.

I'm deeply alone, on the last day of a business trip. My friends said they would meet me here then all obviously ended up somewhere else. There is no reception so we are unlikely to connect. I will not see many of them for months. I used to love working with them, now see them very seldom and the thought fills me with a profound sense of sadness.

One bar person comes over to explain the confusion. "You had 2 Hendricks and tonic, one with lemon and one with cucumber."

I finish my drink, get my coat and head out into the cold.

Making other people rich

A basic understanding of economics can help you to be a happier and more successful person

I was travelling on the tube one day when as is sometimes the case, a guy came into the carriage with a cup of change and started telling everyone the story of his (hard) life and how he came to be homeless. He then passed the cup around for people to make donations. "Why", someone asked, "don't you sell the big issue instead of begging?" The response of the homeless guy was very interesting and vituperative. He ranted about how the founder of the big issue was now a millionaire and that he (homeless guy) "wasn't going to work to make anybody else rich". Now I have no idea whether the person who founded the big issue is a millionaire or not. I hope he is but it really doesn't matter for our purposes here. At the time my intution was that this attitude was at the heart of the problems that had led this unfortunate man to be in his current predicament, but I didn't at the time know enough about economics to realise why this was the case.

In a free market all trades result in excess value for both participants or else they don't occur. Even in real everyday life it's easy to see by example why this is the case. Say for instance I want to sell one of the old computers I have cluttering up the place and never use. If you don't offer me enough I won't let you have the computer, and if I ask for too much then you won't be interested. "Enough" is "at least as much as I think the computer is worth to me" and "too much" is "more than you're willing to pay to own what is (let's face it) more than likely to be a redundant piece of junk". So the price we agree on has to be more than I think the computer is worth to me and less than you are willing to pay for it otherwise we won't make the deal because it's not worthwhile. We could define a fair trade as one in which the excess value on both sides of the deal was equal.

The Big Issue magazine is a magazine that campaigns on behalf of homeless people and it's business model is designed to help homeless people to improve their lot through their own efforts, not through charity. The way this works is that instead of selling through shops and newsstands, the magaine is sold to homeless people who then sell it on the streets and make a profit on each copy they sell. The idea is that they can then use the money they make to gradually raise themselves out of poverty. So the homeless person becomes a vendor: paying the company wholesale price and selling it at retail and making a small profit on each magazine sold. This profit is the excess value for the vendor. In return, the company is happy to sell at retail so that it doesn't need to worry about distribution.

Now consider the person who founded the magazine and imagine for the sake of simplicity that he does everything concerned with running the magazine himself. He gets people to write pieces for the magazine, organises the printing and everything else that is necessary until he has a stack of magazines ready for distribution. He then sells bundles of magazines to vendors for them to sell on at a profit. It stands to reason that because he is doing a lot of transactions (with each one of a number of vendors) and each of these transactions is creating an excess of value for both sides, that along the way he will create a lot of value for himself as well as helping a lot of homeless people who become vendors of his magazine. By helping others in this way he can easily become very rich if he manages his business well even if every deal he does is completely fair.

It's fashionable in some circles to think that anyone who becomes rich does so by exploiting others. Sometimes this is the case. However, from an economic point of view, there is no reason that someone creating a lot of value for others may not also become rich along the way. In fact, many times, making other people richer is the best way to improve one's own lot in life. Certainly anyone who scrupulously avoids creating value for others is likely to end up with very little for themselves. Since he made me come to realise this, I now wish I had given that homeless guy on the tube more of my change.

Should Payment be by Effort or Results?

Some companies and systems seek to pay people by effort, rather than by the results they achieve.

The first computer job I got when I moved to London was as a "Database operator" at a small, family owned company which supplied scientific equipment. They didn't make the equipment themselves, they were wholesalers. My predecessor in the job was leaving to travel the world and spent his last couple of weeks showing me the job, which entailed producing reports that the marketing manager could use to target specific products at the appropriate customers. The data came from an old Siemens/Nixdorf mainframe computer which ran the customer sales and invoicing system for the business, so the job involved importing the data onto a PC and producing reports using a spreadsheet package.

Every month my predecessor got the two floppy disks worth of data from the mainframe and spent about a week and a half importing the information into a Paradox database on the PC. The import procedure involved running a series of buggy QBasic programs (written for us by a contracting company), phoning the company when it didn't work, waiting a few days for a fix to arrive and inevitably giving up in disgust and importing the data by hand using cut and paste. Once the numbers were imported, he would be able to produce reports, which again was a laborious manual process. Every month he was able to do the import and produce about four or five reports in the remaining two or three weeks.

When I took over, I set about first fixing the bugs in the import program, and then rewriting it, using the built-in language which came with the database so I could put the floppies in and import the data straight into the database in a couple of hours with a single button press (It would have been faster but PCs were just very slow in those days). I gradually redesigned and normalised the database and made standard queries which answered all of my boss's usual reporting needs. Suddenly I could not only produce reports right from the beginning of the month, but I could produce more reports than my predecessor, with less work. All I did to produce a report was run a query, paste the results into a spreadsheet and apply the formatting. It would take about half an hour at the most to do a report. I could do more in a single day than my predecessor could in the entire month, so I used to get all my work done and then play a mindless first-person shoot-em-up game to fill my time.

Now the incentive for me to fix the software and write new software to improve my productivity in this job was that I was lazy and wanted to avoid the tedious manual labour that my predecessor did. My employers benefited hugely from this: not only did I do much more work than they expected, but I eliminated the need for support calls to the consultants to fix the import program. My boss, however, was always a bit grumpy when he saw me playing the game, thinking than I should be doing something better with the company's time.

Conversely, I once worked with a developer who checked in a truly extraordinary amount of code. He worked long hours, got paid very little and was continually frustrated. Why? Because his employer was principally concerned with the outcome of the code and wasn't seeing a whole lot of results they liked.

Lots of employers, consciously or otherwise, adopt a policy of payment by effort. It's not uncommon in the software jobs for people to measure "productivity" simply by looking at the number of lines of code checked in to the source code revision control system. As can be seen from this example, however, this can be enormously counter-productive as it provides an incentive for activity, rather than achievement. This is a big problem with so-called "alternative economic systems" such as parecon. They simply reward the wrong things.

Public funding of political parties

The UK political parties are voting for their own interests by asking for taxpayer funding. Taxpayers should say "no".

In the light of recent scandals various proposals have been made that would result in political parties in the UK receiving taxpayers' money to fund their activities. This is something that UK taxpayers should fight in the strongest possible terms for two reasons: Firstly, the main political parties stand to benefit hugely from this change- they would no longer need to worry about funding but would simply receive boatloads of cash as of right. This would tend to entrench the political status quo. Secondly, it could only be achieved by raising the tax burden in the UK even higher than it is now or by cutting government expenditure on other things. As all taxes promote economic inefficiency raising the tax burden is a terrible idea. Equally, while cutting government expenditure in general is a good thing, simply replacing one existing form of government waste with another is bad in general and in this case particularly odious.

How about instead we keep our current system where people who want political parties to be well-funded get to put their money where their mouth is and fund them? This is good for several reasons: Firstly it is maximally efficient- I spend the amount I want to spend to achieve the political funding outcome I want and nothing is wasted. Secondly, I can't lie- if political funding is so important to me that I want others to pay but I am unwilling to pay myself I get nothing. Thirdly, people who are not interested in sponsoring a political party are not forced against their will to do so. Finally, the overall burden of taxation is not increased, so everyone has more money of their own which they can use to do whatever they want (including donating it to a political party if they want to).

Making political parties taxpayer-funded won't make politicians immune from accusations of bribery- people who want to seek influence just need to be more subtle, funding party-affiliated organisations or events (this happens extensively now) and bribing politicians personally rather than improperly funding their parties.

Eat Toast!

Strength. Vitality. Nutrition.

Breakfast this morning was a farce.

I went to the canteen at the place where I work. I had a headache and was feeling a bit shit. Prescription: toast.

They have shiny new toasters. I put a bagel in the toaster and go pick up a drink. The toasters have not been assembled correctly so the toasted bagel goes out the far side of the toaster and falls down behind the counter. VERY LOUD canteen woman comes over to see what's wrong. I tell her the new toaster is buggered and my bagel has fallen down behind the counter. Pissed off I start wandering to the other bit of the canteen to get a coffee.

VERY LOUD woman starts shouting at me from behind the counter across the canteen. EXCUSE ME SIR! EXCUSE ME SIR! I turn around and see she is waving the bagel which she has picked up off the floor. Not sure what she wants me to do about it so I ignore her.

She is not deterred. EXCUSE ME SIR! EXCUSE ME SIR! She's shouting. "She'll stop soon", I think, and continue wandering over to get coffee. Now another canteen guy has joined in, and is following me across the canteen. "Excuse me sir, she's trying to get your attention". "I know. I don't want to talk to her". EXCUSE ME SIR! EXCUSE ME SIR!

By now I am at the counter in the coffee place. "What's the problem?" says the guy who has followed me all the way over from the other bit of the canteen. "I don't know" say I, "but your toaster's broken. I'm just trying to get coffee.".

"Are you going to pay for that drink?" he says

"Yes".

Him, (to person behind the coffee bar) "Make sure he pays for that drink".

A blatant plug

A concert worth attending (not that I have any personal interest. Oh no...)

On Thursday 7 June The Flautadors will be playing a concert at Wigmore Hall, one of the best venues for chamber music in London. The concert is to launch their new CD of Baroque music by Purcell and Locke, and it should be a great. You can book for the concert now.

I have to declare an interest, because Catherine Fleming, one of members of The Flautadors, is my wife. I also host their mail and dns and translated their website from a table-based layout to xhtml and css.

Unless otherwise specified the contents of this page are copyright © 2015 Sean Hunter. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.