Who pays?

The politician 1775 engraving by a J.K Sherwin after a 1730s sketch by Hogarth

“A politician should (as I have read)
Be furnish’d in the first place with a head…”

With the recent elections in Europe and the upcoming G8 summit there is an outbreak of talk of a choice between austerity and growth. By a choice of growth, most mean that governments should become an engine of economic stimulation via public spending.

Politicians in democracies should always do what is popular, that’s what makes it a democracy, but a proper democracy requires an informed electorate. This puts an extraordinary burden on politicians and journalists not just to be impartial, but to know what they are talking about.

When I was first studying macro economics, my favourite lecturer gave us two facts* which he believed all prospective politicians and journalists should demonstrate an understanding of before taking up their roles. They are encapsulated in two questions which electors / readers should ask :-

1. Who does a borrower borrow from?  and

2. Who pays taxes?

The answers are, of course, via convoluted mechanisms :-

1. the borrower’s future self, and

2. people (Mostly those in private sector employment or with personal wealth).

We should all be wary of being bought with our own money.

* I say facts but they are, of course, assertions. If you disagree by all means say so, and why, in a comment.

So what’s the problem?

Bruce Montgomery a.k.a. Edmund Crispin

When all the coding for an app is done the last things I do before testing are to tidy up the artwork and write the manual. Writing the manual actually forms the basis for a lot of the testing as walking through all of the app, taking screen shots and explaining the sequence of work throws up quite a few inconsistencies and bits of poor labelling which need to be fixed. This happens as I try to pre-empt the user asking why or how something is done at any particular juncture.

Despite this, later testing occasionally turns up what should be fairly obvious faults that familiarity has left me blind to. (These are precisely the things that always surface as soon as you show the work to someone else.) You can only get so far guessing where the problems will lie for others.

I remember reading some 20 years ago about a “cardboard assistant” which you would sit in a chair next to you and explain a problem you were trying to solve. The process of collecting your thoughts and presenting them in a coherent manner would often provoke a spontaneous insight into the solution, or so it was claimed. This is very similar to Eliza, an early natural language processing program which either ridiculously parodied or acutely mimicked a visit to a psychiatrist depending on your point of view. Eliza gives an impression of sentience by using trigger words in your responses to ask related but seemingly insightful questions, leading you ever on. Both of these tools, if they are to have any chance of success, require you to have correctly framed the correct problem. (See earlier post on Russell Ackoff to see that we are not intuitively very good at this).

This issue is described by Edmund Crispin in his detective story The Glimpses of the Moon as “The Chesterton Effect”. In this story an unidentified man is found dead, minus an arm, in a tent during a village fete. As the tent also contains what its elderly spinster owners imagine to be a very valuable painting, the comings and goings of people are completely observed. The only person to leave who could possibly have been carrying the arm is the Vicar who had his cricket bag with him. It is quickly established that he was not carrying the arm. The greater part of the book is spent, diversions aside, in establishing how the man’s arm was removed from the tent. The solution when found, is described as only being possible as the problem as set represents the Chesterton Effect, viz:-

1. The wrong question has been asked, and

2. The answer to the right question is a paradox.

In Crispin’s book, instead of asking how the arm was removed, the question should have been why? The paradoxical answer is “because it wasn’t there”. Upon establishing that the victim was a recent amputee, his identity and relationship to a suspect is established and the case is quickly solved.

First then, I need to find a better way to establish some correct questions to be asking when testing. Wisdom in this sort of area I often find in the work of Stafford Beer and his “Viable Systems Model” so I’ll have to have a dig through some boxes. Then I’ll give up and buy another copy of “Platform for Change” (I must already have two or three). Then I’ll find one of the others propping up a dodgy table leg or similar. Ho-Hum.

A global workforce for one man businesses.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Coming across an article on the BBC website last week set me aback a bit. It describes a camera that prints out a description of what it has just taken a picture of. “What kind of witchery is this?” I hear you ask. Well it’s both much simpler and potentially more world changing than it appears at first hearing.

Much like the original Mechanical Turk, which purported to be a chess playing machine or engine, but transpired (cf. Oz, Wizard thereof) to be operated by a concealed person, there are people supplying the real smarts.

What happens when a picture is taken is that it is uploaded to an internet address. Monitoring that address is an amazon service called amazon mechanical turk which is like a task brokerage. People who have signed on to the service are passed HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) such as the photo and perform the required task, in this case providing a brief description of the picture. For this the taker of the picture pays a small sum (In this case $1.25 per shot). This seems reasonably cheap to me as long as the picture is delivered fairly quickly (Within a couple of minutes say).

For the person doing the task, who needs a seat in an internet cafe and a reasonable command of english (Or the client’s required language), lets say it’s a dollar for a couple of minutes work after amazon has taken its cut. This compares very well with call centre work, in fact if you can keep a reasonably full in-tray and do say 20 an hour on average it’s pretty near average UK pay.

The structure provided seems very promising to me, companies can acquire an ad-hoc workforce as large as they need, across time zones so providing 24 hour service without unsociable hours pay, without ever becoming employers or providing office space and equipment. Workers anywhere can work for very many employers, through a single point of contact, as much or as little as they wish. A transaction then takes place providing a service, regardless of international boundaries, to the satisfaction of two equal parties who have never met.

You can read the BBC article here.


Pensive Hay Resident
Pensive Hay Resident


In an entirely unexpected and atypical burst of productivity, the updated universal version of Almanac was submitted to the app store over the weekend  and resuming Lifemodel, which had been put aside, I found it almost complete and have added the missing bits.

Providing the testing doesn’t uncover any egregious errors it should be submitted by the weekend.

In sharp contrast to Almanac, which has four selectable interfaces with lots of graphic elements, it has very little artwork. There is considerably more code and it is very calculation intensive but should be a small, quick loading app. This means that the splash screens which pop up while it is loading are only visible briefly and may not be noticed at all.

That gives the opportunity, for those afflicted by the imp of the perverse like me, to be a little playful with the images used. I have therefore picked one of my favourite local pictures as the landscape screen. I don’t suppose anyone will notice it in the app, so here it is.