Sunday, June 28, 2009

Music in pubs

Why is there music everywhere? Over the last few years it's become almost ubiquitous. Almost every shop, almost every café, almost every pub. Music used to be one of the great pleasures of life, but it's turning into a curse.

As a human being, I like music. In fact I've a startlingly good memory for the lyrics of songs that I like. But if there's music loud enough to hear well it takes over my whole mind. I literally can't read, or think, or even hold a conversation if the music is loud enough to get my attention. Even if it's music I like. If I like it I just give up and concentrate on it instead. If I don't give up and try to think about something anyway then I get my train of thought repeatedly broken and it's torture.

As a result I've taken to carrying earplugs most of the time. I can see that working behind a bar is the sort of job where it would be good to have something to listen to, so I can see why the staff put it on, but why do the pubs and cafés and shops have the (presumably expensive) equipment fitted in the first place? And then pay the Performing Rights Society subscription?

What's most infuriating is when I walk into a quiet, empty café or boozer, sit down and start to read my paper or do the crossword, and then someone turns the music on. As if it wasn't something they would listen to themselves, but felt they had to do if there were customers present.

However I've also noticed that a completely empty pub or cafe can feel lonely if it's echo-prone. Quiet background music then can actually help if you're with friends and have gone there to talk, because it makes you feel more comfortable and less likely to be overheard.

Likewise an evening in the pub is always improved by quiet jazz in the background. It's a prerequisite that it's too quiet to be noticed, but you can see that it lifts everyone's mood, and makes people talk louder. Once it gets loud enough to hear, it kills the conversation and people start to look bored.

I have heard a conspiracy theory that certain pubs turn the music up loud exactly so that conversation becomes difficult. People who aren't talking drink more, partly because they're bored and lonely. But I think that's only going to be the case if it's very loud. And most places have it on at a perfectly reasonable volume.

So is it me?

One day, when I lived in London, I was standing on a Tube platform, reading an advert on the other side. The text was so small that I was having trouble. There was no way to stand closer. I thought to myself that it was strange that someone would spend (quite a lot) of money on an advert in the underground, and then cram so much on it that you couldn't read it.

Of course, as soon as you put it like that, the answer is obvious. No one would do such a thing. To most people, the text would have to be legible. There had to be something wrong with me instead. Now that I came to think of it, in my college years I'd always sat near the front in lectures. Partly because it's easier to hear and ask questions, but also so that I could read the blackboard. I always used to wonder why people would bother to turn up and sit at the back where they couldn't see.

Sure enough, in an opticians that afternoon, it turned out that I was slightly short sighted. In a way that makes more difference in low light. He gave me contact lenses, which disappointingly made no real difference inside. But he told me to go out into the Tottenham Court Road. It was night time, and I was bowled over by the view of London lights at night which I'd never seen clearly before. But the real shock was when I looked up at the Post Office Tower, a very tall building several hundred metres away. In what had previously been a lit circle in the sky, I saw a man walk across a room and turn a light off. I hadn't had the slightest idea that human distance vision was that good. Although apparently I'd had perfect vision at the age of ten, I'd lost it so slowly that I'd never noticed.

And so I wonder. Is it me that's weird with this music thing?

It really drives me up the wall. And yet people must think about this. Publicans must read articles in trade magazines that tell them what to play and how loud, in order to increase custom. But there are many pubs in Cambridge that I avoid just because they'll occasionally turn it up too loud. And for my lunchtime reading and crossword-doing forays, I'll seek out the ones I know are usually silent, and take earplugs just in case.

Even worse are bookshops. Cambridge has three large bookshops, of which the second most virtuous, and the one with the best café, is Waterstones. I don't go there much anymore, because they have a store-wide speaker system, and a habit of turning it up until I can't read. Once upon a time, even before they put their excellent café in, it was my favourite, but the music has completely spoiled it for me.

The other day I was in there, and I spotted a hardback book of Richard Dawkins' selection of the best science writing. A book could not be more precisely calculated to appeal to me unless it was a novel about Jesuits in space. I took it down and started to read. I was entranced. I could feel the money leaving my pocket as I read. And then about half way through the first article, which was very good, they turned on the speakers. About ten minutes later I realised that I'd just made five attempts to read the paragraph I'd been on, and it had made no sense. And I was inexplicably furiously angry. So I put (pretty much threw, actually) this precious book back on the shelves and stormed out. Once I'd stopped trying to read, I recognised the song, which was 'Rose for my Rose', a Motown classic that's one of my favourites.

So thanks Waterstone's. You've saved me £20, since on quiet reflection I can wait for the paperback. And lost yourself £30, since I'll buy that paperback from Heffer's, which is my current favourite bookshop, and which never has music on.

But what is going on here? Waterstone's want people to browse, surely? The market for people who buy books on the basis of what their covers look like can't be too big? And the places are set up to encourage it. There are sofas. There are tables. There are cafés. There are systems for collecting all the books left in the cafés at the end of the day and reshelving them.

There has to be research on this. Supermarkets and the like know that if they play French music then they sell more French wine, and German music sells more German wine. The pub and bookshop trades are large and dominated by big chains, to whom these issues are well worth the salaries of a few academics.

And in fact music in supermarkets annoys me too. Over a certain level I find it impossible to concentrate well enough to remember what I set out to buy. Or to remember that if I want Yorkshire puddings I'll need flour and eggs and salt.

There's a certain branch of the Co-op in Cambridge, which has pleasant staff and good food, super-ethical animal welfare policies, is good value for money and is within easy walking distance of my house. Sadly they not only play bad music over a tinny speaker system, but they constantly interrupt it with irritating adverts for themselves, with jingles specially composed to make you want to kill everyone involved with the damned institution. Several times I've found myself wandering desperately around in there, looking for the thing I wanted to buy in the hope that seeing it will make me remember what it was. I will use it if I want one or two things, but for any decent size shopping trip, I've taken to cycling about a mile to get to Tesco's (which is quiet), and then cycling back with four or five bags dangerously hung off my handlebars. For really large shopping trips I have been known to drive, and anyone who's ever tried to park in central Cambridge is probably thinking that I'm insane at this point.

And yet, on the other hand, not all places do this. One of the largest and most cynically profit-focused English pub chains, Wetherspoons, makes a virtue of its no-music policy. It certainly works for me. I wouldn't be seen dead in one if they didn't do this.

I assume they've seen the same research as all the small private landlords. What is going on?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

I've read this once, and it deserves a second reading. A large part of what he's saying is what Mandelbrot already told us in 'The Misbehaviour of Markets'. I.e that dice games aren't a good model for how large connected systems work, which means that all our ideas about statistics and risk in the real world are not only wrong but actively harmful.

But there's more going on here. He has some psychological insights into our tendency to make stories out of past random sequences. There's an outstanding paragraph where he predicts the coming of the current credit crunch very accurately. He'd probably tell me that that doesn't prove anything, because if enough people write enough horror crash scenarios then after the event one of them will prove to have been spot on. But illustrating the power of one of his primary ideas, I'm going to ignore that very valid and obvious point, and hail the man as a genius for that one paragraph.

Anyway, this may or may not be a life-changing book. I simply can't tell after the one reading. I'm going to read it again. It may be a work of genius, it may just be 'The misbehaviour of markets for dummies', with some rants tacked on. I'll get back to you. It's pretty entertaining anyway. Those that like this sort of thing will like this very much.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Government as Mafia

What happens in an anarchy? If there's no law, what do we do?

We can look at modern countries like Sierra Leone or Somalia to find out. It's pretty awful.

Everyone's poor, because there's no point in making things if they instantly get stolen. (Actually there may be some point in making weapons).

If we suppose that our anarchy is on an isolated island, or on a distant planet, then we might imagine that after a short while almost everything is broken and no one's farming, so almost everyone's dead of starvation and the rest are living by hunting and gathering. Diseases, uncontrolled, have scythed through the population until it's so thin that the diseases can't sustain themselves any more. Almost all the old are dead, any children are uneducated, even the memory of civilisation is gone, replaced by dreams of a golden age from which man is fallen. We're back in the stone age.

But is it stable?

No. Humans have built in loyalties to kin and we make friends. Groups of kin and friends will collaborate to defend what little they have and to take from others. Small pockets of stable wealth will form. By wealth I don't really mean much more than the ability to feed oneself.

These groups may then be able to expand, slowly by breeding, quickly by forming alliances with other groups or accepting strangers. Eventually you get a situation where there is a little pocket of peace capable of defending itself against all comers.

At this point I think we can call the leaders of these groups warlords. They may not do much fighting voluntarily, but they will definitely need to be able to defend themselves. And given what's normal in the society around them, they'll probably take any opportunity to take stuff from other groups if they can do it safely.

Both they and the surrounding other groups will probably find it convenient, rather than constant raiding and bloodshed, to arrange the payment of 'protection' fees.

This is protection in the sense of 'protection from me burning your house down', but it will become the other sort eventually. The warlord will not be pleased, once he has got used to the protection money, to see the people he extorts it from unable to pay, because they have been killed by a raid from another warlord. Eventually bonds of loyalty and trust will form, even between oppressor and oppressed. I believe this happens with criminal gangs and protection rackets even today. If you pay protection money to the mafia, they do at least protect you from other gangs.

Where is this protection money going? A little of it may even be being spent on luxuries, but mainly it will be supporting the military capability of the warlords. In order to extort money regularly and efficiently, a large number of non-productive thugs need to be supported. And their standard of living needs to be quite high, because their job is very dangerous, and if they only got the same things as a farmer gets, they would probably rather be farmers.

It may even come to the point where the warlord allows his clients to keep slightly more of what they make than they need. But I imagine this is unlikely. If a warlord 'went soft', then his military capability would reduce to the point where he would be vulnerable to a takeover bid.

Of course, when I say warlord, he's not just the village strongman anymore. There'll be a whole ruling group, probably a family, of which he's the strongest. There will be some constraints on his power, since he's held in position more by who his friends are than by personal strength. He can be replaced without disturbing the power structure.

The world is very hierarchical. No one can command the direct loyalty of more than a few other people. The direct friends of the strongman will be other, smaller strongmen. Each strongman will have his own associated group of retainers, henchmen, and thugs, whose fighting ability maintains his position. Wealth produced by the lowest levels of the society will flow up the tree, with each gangster taking a cut on the way. The peasants are no more than slaves or cattle.

What next? This situation looks fluid, in that there's constant fighting and takeover between the different warlords. But it may be stable in the sense that it could stay like this for hundreds of years. Different warlords, different villages might be on top from time to time, but the general situation will always be the same.

Are there countries like this? Have there ever been countries like this?

So have we stabilised yet?

I imagine that if two groups are of very different sizes, but interact, then one will oppress the other. The small group will either accept the oppression, find a different oppressor to 'protect' it from the first, or die resisting. Either way, the small group will end up joining the big group somehow. Even if it's just by leaving their land in the possession of their murderers.

As a result, groups will grow. There will soon be no small groups left.

Groups can also fission, but I imagine it's unlikely. It isn't really in anybody's interest to become smaller. You'd be inviting attack from a neighbour. It seems more likely that a piece of a group would split off and join another large grouping. But even then, the quarrel would have to be serious. Maybe a language or racial difference within the groups could do it, given our awesome abilities to hate people we don't see as individuals. But then these groups might not form in the first place.

So what stops the aggregation process? I think natural barriers will do it. It's appallingly difficult to send an army over mountains or seas, and then to keep it supplied. Probably difficult enough that most of the time, an uneasy peace prevails.

Two large groups may have a border where there is no barrier, but that would probably be a constantly unstable situation. I think only a racial or language barrier could keep the two groups from coalescing. In that case, you'd get regular genocides and centuries-long hatreds.

At any rate, what we now have is recognisably countries, and our warlords have become kings.

So what next? Well to some extent, the pressure of the war of all against all is now gone. The countries, safe behind whatever natural barriers they've found, persist for lifetimes. And at that point, the kings will notice that tiny internal fights keep breaking out.

Honour is very important in this world. The only thing that stops a man from being randomly murdered over trivia is the expectation that his kin will avenge him.

Pretty much any drunken argument, or any instance of female infidelity can lead to a death, which needs to be avenged by another death, which needs another death, and so on, and it never ends.

This is not a good situation to have amongst your slaves. The person you are yourself a slave to will want his money, and is unlikely to accept excuses along the lines of 'half my slaves have killed each other in a fight that started over an insult'.

Even the king himself needs money. He needs to keep his vassals and his private army on side. They can potentially replace him if they're not happy with him.

If a dispute breaks out horizontally across the social structure, it's up to the owner of the disputers to settle it before it gets out of hand.

There are several popular methods of settling disputes. The honourable duel is one, where both sides agree cheerfully to fight to the death. The winner is proved right. No one needs to take any revenge or anything because it was all perfectly fair.

There's trial by ordeal. In this case, the local lord decides which of the two disputing parties has annoyed him most, and has him tortured. If the torturee survives, then he is declared to have had right on his side all along. I am not making this up. Our ancestors did this a lot. I imagine that it tends to discourage disputes.

There is trial by oath, where the accuser and the accused swear publically to the innocence or guilt of the accused. Each is allowed to bring friends and supporters, people of higher rank count for more, and the man with the highest number of oaths wins. This has the virtue of settling the dispute in the way it would have been settled with a fight, but without any actual fighting.

At any rate, whatever method or combination of methods is used, a judicial system is being established. Sooner or later it will become standardised.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Insurance is a bad idea

I'm looking for a house in Cambridge at the moment, and due to the lack of central places being privately advertised, I'm being drawn into the clutches of letting agents. They always impose vast numbers of unnecessary charges and bits of bureaucracy, and are usually a pain in the neck. The one exception was the now-deceased Camflats, who were great. But obviously there's something in the business model that means that if you're great you go bust.

For instance, why do they demand that people take out contents insurance on letting an unfurnished house? There's not much of the landlord's property there that can be damaged.

Insuring against small risks has always seemed like a bad idea to me.

The idea of insurance is to spread risk around so that occasional bad things won't hurt you. Take car accidents. You can't really control whether you have one or not. If you could then you'd presumably just opt not to.

However the costs of a car accident are immense. You could end up owing someone £1,000,000 without too much trouble. Usually this would mean that you're bankrupt, and rather more importantly that the poor person you've hurt is left without any means of support and has to starve to death.

For this reason, almost all governments make third-party car insurance compulsory for all drivers.

This is a good thing. Instead of being bankrupted once in 100 lifetimes, everyone chips in £10000 over the course of their driving career to cover the costs of the unlucky driver and his innocent victim.

So far so good. Except that there are many consequences of the insurance scheme itself.

For one thing, the very fact that the consequences of crashing are reduced means that people will drive a little more carelessly. If you know that your car will be repaired if there's an accident, then you pay more attention to getting places faster than to getting there without scratching the paint. So accidents happen more often (including the serious ones). This effect is called 'moral hazard'.

Similarly, if you've got theft insurance, you'll be a lot less worried about whether you remembered to lock your car. More cars will be stolen as a result.

Also, as anyone who's ever dealt with an insurance claim will know (or even filled in the application forms), there's lots of paperwork. This is something you'd probably rather not be doing, and it's certainly something that the people at the insurance company would rather not be doing, and so they need to be paid.

There need to be salesmen and offices and advertising, so that the insurance companies and their customers can get in touch in the first place.

And there's fraud. Insurance fraud is so common that you probably know someone who's admitted doing it. I don't know why we don't really think of it as a crime, but we don't. Of course someone who sets fire to their house to collect the insurance money is a criminal in most people's eyes, but what about the elderly couple whose freezer packs up, and ruins all their food, and to cover the excess on the claim and make it worthwhile claiming, they add a couple of packets of smoked salmon to the bill?

Of course now the innocent are paying other people to defraud them. And the insurance company is paying more people to watch out for the fraudsters.

It all adds up.

If you take out insurance you have to pay all these costs, as well as what you're really after, which is to share your risk with other people so that you pay a small fixed amount rather than an occasional large amount.

Car insurance is still a good idea, because the risk has to be covered (for the sake of the innocent).

But what about small risks? If you know that the maximum you could lose is, say, the cost of a new fridge and dishwasher, wouldn't you be better off just waiting to see if anything bad happened? That would be just like setting up an insurance company yourself, and only writing policies to people you absolutely knew would be trustworthy and careful, with whom you could make perfectly understood agreements that either side would always be happy with. And all your advertising would be free.

You could keep all the profits. That sounds like a great business model to me.

Threshold (Ursula Le Guin)

I always find Ursula Le Guin heavy going, but she's usually worth it. This time not.

Unless I've missed something fundamental, this book has no interesting ideas in it, and isn't fun to read either. There's something Freudian going on with she-dragons and oppressive mothers and maybe separation from abusive fathers, but honestly I wish I hadn't bothered.

I don't like slagging off a favourite author. It feels disloyal. Read 'The Dispossessed' and 'The Lathe of Heaven' instead.