Monday, 24 September 2012

Blogging on hold

Due to a variety of factors in find myself with much less time than usual so blogging is on hold until after Boyd and Beyond


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Locking in perception

Much has been said about Mitt Romney's "47 percent" moment. If you happen to live in a cave, here's the original quote, which somewhat speaks for itself:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Now, this was said in private, but of course in the 21st century there is no such thing as private, it simply doesnt exist. A sensible candidate would keep that firmly in mind and ensure that when speaking at any event like this his comments are at least somewhat moderated by the assumption someone is recording them. But that assumption clearly wasn't being made here, which is unfortunate for Romney.

Personally, I think this is a survivable mistake, because the simple fact is that it says nothing about Romney which lots of people didn't already believe, and he's right those people were never going to vote for him. The problem is that this election is likely to swing on a very small number of swing voters:
In spite of clich├ęs about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate. 
Assuming that 2.5% percent lean each way (probably not true) Romney's comments will have served to convince the Democrat leaning group that he is what they suspect but might have been willing to forgive. When the vote is sliced as thinly as it is this year, that's a major problem.

Salon writer Steve Kornacki made a very sensible comparison to Gordon Brown in the last British election:
This is why on “The Last Word” last night I suggested that the best parallel for the Romney story comes from recent British political history — the 2010 incident in which then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was caught on an open mic disparaging a woman he’d just met as “bigoted.” Brown and his party, like Romney and Paul Ryan now, were running from behind, and the story both reinforced Brown’s image as a cold and arrogant man and completely overwhelmed news coverage at a critical moment for him.
It's hard to imagine that Romney can easily come back from where he is right now because although this one incident is unlikely to hurt him in terms of driving voters away it will have locked out critical swing voters he was relying on to bring him closer to Obama and who are hard to reflect accurately in polling data.

Certainly the next week will be critical, as Romney seeks to get the message back on track and control it, something which he has struggled to do to date.


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The future of wireless power - Crosspost

I've a new blogpost up at the GfK TechTalk blog which I highly recommend. It's on the topic of wireless charging and the potential impact it might have on consumer electronics. I hope it's of interest. Please direct any comments to the TechTalk blog itself:

Chargers are an inevitable result of ubiquitous consumer electronics. There are phone chargers, tablet chargers, iPod chargers, laptop chargers, and the extension cables required to support them all. At one stage, it became so complicated that the EU stepped in, passing legislation to make all phone chargers identical. But despite this move, we need a lot of wires to keep our devices blazing away.
Yet wireless power transfer has been around in one form or another since the late 1800s, when individuals like Nikola Tesla began experimenting with the technology and demonstrating its feasibility. Since then, the technology has continued to evolve although never truly becoming a widespread feature of consumer electronics. However, all that might be about to change due to a confluence of events necessitating new approaches to old problems.

It is increasingly clear the future of motor travel is electric, which will drive a major change in how power is made available; the electrical equivalent of petrol stations will be required. However, charging a battery is not the same as filling a petrol tank. Even the most effective batteries take time to charge, and the most logical point for a car to charge is at the beginning or end of a journey when the driver is away from the vehicle. As such, it makes far more sense to charge cars using wireless induction which uses an electromagnetic field to transfer power between two devices. Consequently, multiple vehicles could be charged from a single station and the risk of unplugging a charging vehicle would be reduced.

Recently, Japanese researchers demonstrated a way of transferring power through a layer of concrete. This raises the exciting possibility of (one day in the future) being able to create infrastructure to charge vehicles whilst they are both on the move and parked. It also potentially means this infrastructure could be hidden. And an indication of the excitement around this technology, later this year, London will host a cooperative project between Qualcomm and Delta Motorsport to experiment using wireless car charging.

At the same time, consumer electronics (particularly smartphones) are being designed to include wireless charging technologies. The first of these was the Samsung Galaxy S3 with the charging pad set to be released later this year.  Apple has also been granted a number of new patents, including one for inductive charging. Nokia has just announced that its new phones will also embrace this trend, and it is even building partnerships to include wireless charging facilities in some public places. In the words of Jo Harlow, executive vice president of smart devices at Nokia “[this is] a first step in our plan to make wireless charging as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi is today.”

In a potentially more dramatic move, Intel is looking to integrate wireless power transmission technology into their laptops. Coupled with this, it wants to put wireless charging into devices using Intel chips. This includes a range of consumer electronics, so could potentially become a sales feature for smartphones, tablets and MP3 players.

But there are wider implications to wireless power transmission, particularly as its efficiency improves and it can power over greater ranges. Consider how home routers evolved over time; first wired, then wireless over a short range, and now wireless over the entirety of a home. Now wireless internet is a ubiquitous aspect of day-to-day life, and with the advent of super-WiFi it will soon be the case that wherever you can be connected to the internet.

If wireless power goes the same way you could leave your phone on the kitchen counter without worrying that it’ll go flat overnight. These more ambitious technologies might be out of reach for now, but the future holds exciting possibilities.

There are challenges to overcome for wireless power, most notably extending the range beyond needing to place the device to be charged against the charger. Cross compatibility will also be difficult and consumers are unlikely to be happy about reverting to needing a different charger for their different devices. Producers of wireless technology will need to be sensitive to this, or face a consumer backlash and potential regulatory action.

But if wireless charging devices become more universal with all devices easily charged from common sources, what will stop people stealing power from each other wirelessly? Unlike home routers it won’t be easy, or indeed possible, to lock people out of the power source. There is the associated issue of bills to be considered. Although it might be okay in the home, how will public sources of power be charged back to the user?

The involvement of big names like Qualcomm and Intel in wireless charging signals a move in the technology from an outsider’s fantasy to a mainstream part of everyday life. This promises exciting disruptions in how consumer electronics are marketed and sold as well as how consumers interact with their products. Will Starbucks offer free power to its customers in years to come? It remains to be seen, but there is no denying that this is a technology which can no longer be ignored.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Campaigns as insurgency

Insurgency is a part of day to day life, it's a topic regularly in the media and one which most people are familiar with to some extent. Mao codified the operations of an insurgency, broadly laying out a model which had multiple phases:
  1. Organisation and initial disruption of opposition
  2. Rising arc of terrorist attacks, aimed at pushing opposition forces out of place and disengaging them from the population
  3. Open mobile warfare and uprising 
Counter insurgents seek to prevent this steady progression by remaining (or establishing) strong links to the population, in order to deny the insurgent their support and assistance. Usually this is done by providing a positive relationship, although many have tried to establish a counter insurgency strategy based on the use of force, usually to limited success.

One of the areas where campaigning links most strongly to military doctrine is in the insurgency/counter insurgency relationship. In politics, leading up to an election there is a similar tempo of operations:
  1. Organisation and ongoing attempts to establish a narrative against the Government. Directly post election, until the next phase begins
  2. "Ramping up" long term pre election, operations have a steadily rising tempo and impact. Usually 1-2 years before beginning of formal election campaigning
  3. The election, with open conflict between the various "sides" during the formal campaigning period
Obviously these are very broad definitions, as they are in Mao's codification, but structurally they are very similar.

Usually the Government is in the position of the counter insurgent, seeking to maintain strong links to the population, or to rebuild those links if they have declined between elections. The insurgent exists in the form of opposition parties, who can be either cooperative or uncooperative with each other. It's unusual for outright cooperation to exist during the final phase between the election, however it does often happen in the initial phases of organisation and the ramping up phase.

I'll try and build out some more thoughts on this model over the coming weeks, although I'm also in the midst of preparing for Boyd and Beyond, which will take up a fair bit of my time.


Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Blog down due to illness

Nuff said.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Recommended viewing/reading

I finally got around to watching Restrepo and cannot recommend it highly enough, emotive, fascinating, moving. It's all these things and more:
RESTREPO is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, "Restrepo," named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.
 It's a hard watch, but well worth it.

Coupled with that is a piece I came across in Foreign Policy, an email from Lt Gen (Ret) David Barno addressing his sons after watching Restrepo:
Small unit leadership makes all the difference between good units and bad units, units that get nearly overrun and those that prevail. "Battle Company" had very strong leadership, and that is far more the norm across our units today than the exception…but there are exceptions. Our small unit leadership in this war I personally believe is the very best, by a big measure, of any war Americans have fought in -- a strong commentary on the AVF [all-volunteer force] and its quality of growing great leaders. After ten years of war, this obvious attribute would have been unthinkable in the past - Vietnam is a particular example of an Army destroyed by the ten year war it fought. And I saw first-hand what that looked like afterwards as a new lieutenant.
On another topic, the (lack of) evolution of the Nigerial email scam, says something fascinating about how these types of activities are run and the level of intelligence behind those who operate them:
However, On the Media points us to a fascinating research paper by Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley, and a Wall Street Journal article about the research, which reveal why it still makes sense for Nigerian scammers to say they're from Nigeria:

It weeds out all the non-suckers.

Think about it from the scammer's point of view. With advance fee scams, they need to string along someone for a while. A live sucker can be quite valuable, but also involves quite a bit of work. So, for it to be worthwhile, they actually need exceptionally gullible people and by flat out saying they're from Nigeria, given how closely associated that country is with such scams, they quickly weed out the people who are probably smart enough to realize they're getting conned. Since the cost to them of spamming everyone is close to nothing, you may be confused about why you keep getting "Nigerian prince" emails, but they don't care about you. In fact, in ignoring those emails, you're kind of doing them a favor by not bothering them with time-consuming efforts that won't pay off.
I can't recommend Bill Clinton's speech to the DNC highly enough. It's rare to see someone with this much skill speak, and he's at the absolute top of his game while he does it. Agree with his politics or not, this is amazing public speaking:

And a great summary of why it was such a great speech in The Fix:
Bill Clinton took to the stage Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention to reassure Americans about President Obama’s leadership in tough economic times. And he did that, pointing especially to the tough hand Obama was dealt.
But the former president’s most important lines of the night came when he took aim at the opposition party that he once worked successfully with in the White House: the Republicans.
Littered throughout Clinton’s speech were sharp jabs at the GOP. And each one of them was delivered with an easy smile on his face that belied the stark charges.
As always, Nate Silver is the man to watch if you like the polling/analysis of political campaigns as much as I do. His modelling is often right on the money, and although his methodology is sometimes a little more opaque than I might like (professional envy), he's only grown to be a more effective commentator since moving to The New York Times.
There was almost nothing worth talking about in the polls that were out on Wednesday. So let’s take a quick look forward instead — to about a week from now, by which point we will have plenty of data on what effect the Democratic National Convention had on the polls.
Measuring the bounce the incumbent party gets out of its convention is trickier than doing so for the challenger, which holds its convention first. That is because in a year like this one, when the conventions are so closely spaced, the polls will not have had any time to return to equilibrium after the challenger’s convention bounce.
I think that'll do for now, hope you enjoy. I'll do some of my own thinking soon, rather than sharing other people's. I promise.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The new blog

I'll be splitting my time between this blog and my new project Politico Agora.

Politico Agora is a collaborative blog intended to give a group of us a chance to comment and debate the ongoing US Election. There are a range of different points of view on there, both left and right wing, as well as some people like me who don't live in the US. My role will be to provide an outside perspective on things.

Hopefully you'll find it of interest, please do join us on there when you have time. As always, new posts will be up on my twitter feed, or the Politico Agora feed.

We're also very open to new contributors, so please ask if you want to share an opinion onthere.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Strategy from Breaking Bad

This post is the first one ever where I have to say, there will be spoilers.

Breaking Bad is without a doubt the best thing on television, charting the main character, Walter White, and his descent into darkness. For those who haven't watched it, the very simple synopsis is that Walter White is a chemist, who discovers he is dying of cancer. In an effort to ensure that his family have enough money to survive in his absence he starts to make meth. Being as he is a professional chemist he makes some of the best meth it's possible to make and thus begins his second career as a meth manufacturer.

The problem that has arisen for Walter as the show has progressed into it's 5th season is that he's lost track of his strategy, whilst becoming exceptionally good at the tactical implementation of meth manufacture and distribution and it's associated skills, concealment, persuasion and so forth.

Originally Walter had a strategic objective, he was going to earn enough money to pay off his family debts, by producing high quality meth to distribute locally. He had no idea how to achieve this, and had to turn to others to gain the necessary skills, necessitating an alliance (later friendship) with Jessie Pinkman, a local small scale distributor and user of meth.

The problem now for Walter is that he has lost sight of this objective. In a recent episode he had this to say:

"You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business, neither, I'm in the Empire business"
Walt no longer as a useful strategic goal, he's replaced it with an open ended commitment to the endless manufacture of meth for it's own sake. In aiming for this objective he has alienated his family, undermining his original objective by distancing himself from the people he was originally trying to help.

His one advantage is that after more than a year making meth he's now extremely good at organising meth manufacture and distribution. He's also plugged into the criminal underworld, up to the level of now being able to organise gang land style executions in prisons across the State. He has all the tools he needs to build his Empire, but no real idea what form that Empire should take.

Walter has become subject to strategic drift, or "mission creep". As his skills have increased, he's become more and more able to take on larger and larger challenges and so he has, with scant disregard for the consequences of his actions, or the realisation that eventually he will reach a point of overreach, where even his formidable skills won't be sufficient.

If he had retained his original strategic objectives, he would have long since achieved them and been able to move forward with the rest of his life. Now he is on a path which can only lead to defeat, since what remains of his strategic goals imply he will eventually go too far and enter a situation he can't cope with.

Walter is a case study in how tactics can replace strategy over time. Skill in an operational context can lead to endless "victories" which lead no closer to achieving a true goal. It remains to be seen if Walter can be persuaded by those around him or by circumstance to revisit his original strategic goal and step back before he suffers an inevitable defeat.