Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Hoist by your own robot

The history of warfare is full of stories of people turning their enemies' weapons against them with disastrous results.Today's report from AFP that armed robots could be reprogrammed by terrorists to attack us should come as no surprise.

Prior to an address to the Royal United Services Institute, Sheffield University Professor Noel Sharkey is reported as saying " Military leaders are quite clear that they want autonomous robots as soon as possible, because they are more cost effective and give a risk-free war......The use of such devices by terrorists should be a serious concern."

It seems stating the obvious that if the robots can be turned against you then you do not have risk-free war.

"Terminator" style machines will eventually be developed. Will they make better , more precise decisions than troops on the ground who get confused, angry and scared? Probably. Will we feel safer, more secure, more willing to find a peaceful solution? Probably not.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The unintended consequences of Berwick-on-Tweed

If, as the latest straw poll suggests, the inhabitants of Berwick-on-Tweed were to seek to join Scotland after 500 years of being English then the Scots should think through the unintended consequences for Scotland’s claims to the Shetland Islands. After all these islands were pawned in 1469 by the King of Norway and Denmark for a Scottish loan, so they have only been in Scottish hands 13 years longer than Berwick-on-Tweed has been English. There was a right of redemption in payment of 210 kgs of gold , which seems a rather reasonable sum for the oil rich Norwegians to find for 566 square miles, even at the present price of gold.

The financial attractions for the Shetlanders of joining Norway might be even greater than those enthusing the burghers of Berwick-on-Tweed. They would not only be able to expect amongst the highest living standards in Europe, the end to direct EU interference in their lives, but they could also make off with whatever oil reserves are left in their section of the North Sea.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Downhill Risk

Last week in the Daily Telegraph there was the obituary of a Richard Burton who died on January 6th 2008. Not the one who married Elizabeth Taylor twice, but the one who survived 65% burns in a racing car accident , married five times and employed Sarah Ferguson before she became Duchess of York. As my father would have said "He was quite a boy." He was also the direct descendant of Robert Burton who wrote "The Anatomy of Melancholy." Melancholy does not seem to have been a problem, rather an excess of joie de vivre.

One wonderful snippet went as follows " Burton married often and was a fount of knowledge on the art of making love; for example, he insisted that when doing so on a mountainside it was important to be facing downhill."

In the interest of think risk, smarter decisions I leave it to my readers to think through the possible consequences of Burton's downhill tryst.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Walking away is a decision

Sometimes the best decision is not to get involved further. Bidding at an auction is a good example. You need to be very clear about what your top bid is and when you get there you need to be disciplined to walk away otherwise you get caught up in the desire for the object and the competition with the other bidders. That way lies penury. Saito san, when President of Daishowa Paper paid massively over the odds for his Van Gogh portrait of Doctor Gachet, at the time a world record for any picture, just to show that he could. No wonder the Japanese paper industry has a reputation for over investment and poor returns. They used to get away with it because their major shareholders, the banks, were unable to walk away beacuse they were all bound together with cross shareholdings.

Luqman Arnold of Olivant last week demonstrated how it shold be done when he withdrew from the Northern Rock auction citing the impossibility of meeting the government's critieria and also delivering a satisfactory return for his shareholders. He will have enhanced his reputation as a thoughtful investor .

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Embracing diversity

"The underlying struggle is between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, whilst still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty towards those not like us."

Blessed be the embracers for they shall take risks.

The quote is from Barack Obama's book " Dreams From My Father".

Friday, 1 February 2008

Retail is detail

A well known clothing retailer offers free delivery for all items when the combined spend online exceeds £30. In the recent sales a customer who bought salegoods online plus other non-sale items was disappointed when he was told several days later that, due to demand, the sales items could not be supplied and irritated extremely when that meant that the combined total of the goods to be delivered was now below £30 and therefore liable to a delivery charge of £3.50.
Eventually the customer's cries of indignation prevailed and the goods were delivered free of charge, but not before their trust in buying online from the retailer had been badly shaken.

Several questions come to mind

* why couldn't the system immediately advise that the sales items were out of stock, thus avoiding all the subsequent problems?
* why couldn't the computer system pick up the anomaly of a customer losing a benefit because of non- availability, so that it could be looked at and if need be, overridden?
* why wasn't this sort of glitch identified when the system was being set up?

Trust on the internet is key for buyers. Lose that trust and the customers not only never come back they will pass the word to others of their poor experience. The downside of online shopping is much bigger than most people imagine.