Popular Misconception #25: do immigrants cost ‘us’ money?


Nigel Farage and his growing army of admirers on both sides of the House of Commons would have us believe that immigrants cost the UK money. But what are the facts?

According to new research conducted by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College, London, immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45 per cent less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives. 

Furthermore, those from the European Economic Area (EU plus Liechtenstein and Norway) have contributed 34 per cent more as a group than they have received in benefits. 


Please use these fights to fight fear.


Crowdwriting: a new way to make movies?



The future of cinema? from mistersjrobinsonltd.wordpress.com

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s the latest crowdwritten blockbuster from Hollywood.

For a while now, I’ve been a member of a research panel at yougov. You probably know the drill. Every few days I get an e-mail asking me for my views on everything from supermarket advertising (maudlin, uninspiring) to how I would vote if a general election were called tomorrow (early and often).

Then out of the blue on Monday, I received an e-mail from them asking me to take part in an interesting new project. Would I be prepared to take part in an experiment? (Of course I would). Would I like to help yougov produce a movie? (You betcha).

All I had to do was spend 30 minutes watching an animatic with voiceover of the first act of said movie. I won’t give away any of the details of the plot, because they’re not really interesting. What is interesting is that although they were asking for personal responses to the story that was being told, they were then going to aggregate them into a piece of quantitative research that would tell them what was working, and what wasn’t about the film.

Now I’ve seen some interesting research methodology recently – and I’m very excited about the potential of dial testing to produce instant quant responses that can be reacted to and fed back into the process instantly – but this is something I’ve never encountered before.

I know the studios frequently research alternate endings to see which one will make a movie more appealing. (Interesting, given that most people don’t know the ending when they arrive at a movie, so who knows how making it more appealing will affect the potential audience?) But the idea of crowdwriting is really unusual.

Most movies are essentially the product of a director, a writer and a producer, with a number of execs at the studio and the distributor ‘contributing’ in their own inimitable way. It’s a process that has been honed over time that involves individual specialists making value judgments based on what their talent and their experience tell them.

What yougov seem to be saying is that rather than trust the judgment of individual development people, we should judge the wisdom of the crowd. I’m not sure if they’re right, but I’m certainly excited to see how the project turns out.

My only caveat would be the example of the last version of the Ford Escort. So much of Ford’s profit rested on this family compact’s tiny shoulders that the new model was focus-grouped to the point of destruction.

It should have been the most popular car on the market, because everything about it was designed to appeal to someone. Instead, it sold less than the famous Dacia Duster. It failed because in trying to please everyone a bit, it didn’t please anyone very much at all.

Here’s hoping that yougov the movie turns out to be more Harrison Ford than Ford Escort and we all get to crowdwalk up the red carpet together.

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

Elmore Leonard from mistersjrobinsonltd.wordpress.com

‘Don’t let the words get in the way of what you’re trying to say’. The master of economical prose has left us, but his ten rules for writers remain.

If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. That’s not actually one of Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing. It’s one of mine. But his are better. And he’s a lot more successful than I am, so you’re more likely to listen to him.

I was reminded of the rules by Leonard’s recent death. I think they’re just as right for people who write advertising and films as they are for people who write books, especially as they are mainly about the author making himself or herself invisible and not getting in the way of the story.

(They also introduced me to one of my favourite words: ‘Hooptedoodle’.)

But enough of my blathering on. Here they are in full:

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By Elmore Leonard

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Bank crisis: the feeling’s (not) mutual

Image of a Britannia buidling society hot air balloon from mistersjrobinson.wordpress.com

A lot of hot air? Britannia started ‘building a fairer society’, but they’ve ended up damaging the Co-Op bank’s reputation.


Back in the heady days before the banking crisis, building societies were falling over themselves to demutualise and turn themselves into PLCs.

To be fair, there may have been a degree of self-interest involved, as members of mutuals fell over themselves to turn the somewhat abstract benefits of their ‘ownership’ of the old organisation into the very concrete benefits of owning shares in the newcos.

Eventually, the field was reduced to just two: Britannia Building Society and Nationwide.

Under the leadership of Neville Richardson, Britannia made a massive play of its mutual status. Its advertising loudly proclaimed that it was ‘building a fairer society’. Because it was a mutual, savers and borrowers got a better deal.

And then the crisis bit with a vengeance. Britannia seems to have been caught in a very bad place indeed. it merged with the Co-Op bank in very quick time indeed. Mr Richardson was chosen as the ideal man to lead the new organisation, which was of course, still a mutual. (“Good with money” was the Co-Op bank’s strapline at the time.)

Alas, it turns out not to have been true. Among other factors, the liabilities that Britannia had saddled itself with have now brought the Co-Op bank to the table for more funds. £1.5 billion more funds. They’ve called it a ‘bail-in’ but it’s still going to give creditors a serious headache. It’s one of the reasons why the Treasury told the Co-Op bank it could forget all about the deal to buy the ‘spare’ Lloyds TSB branches that they were being forced to sell – which in turn has stymied the Co-Op’s efforts to become a genuine competitor to the big banks.

But it isn’t all bad news for the Co-Op. Oddly enough, the Co-Op bank doesn’t seem likely to be burnt by the bail-in. Normally, the shareholders have to lose the farm before anyone starts telling creditors that they have to take a ‘haircut’. That’s one of the reasons why bonds are conventionally seen as a less risky investment than equity.

That isn’t the case here.

Nor has Mr Richardson lost much, apart from perhaps a little sleep. He left with a payoff reported at £4.6 million and a job as a non-executive director at M&S Bank. He resigned from that role in high dudgeon yesterday.

The only loser (apart from the creditors) is the mutual movement itself, which has seen one of its prime movers disappear altogether, and another lose much of its lustre.

Thank heavens for Nationwide. At least they never set themselves the task of ‘building a fairer society’. They’re happy to tell us they’re ‘on your side’. It’s a less motivating, but perhaps more realistic aim. 

And at least we have one reliable non-PLC choice when it comes to finding a big player to look after our money.




Why Facebook is pinging annoying

Old phones from mistersjrobinsonltd.wordpress.com

Old telephones were specially designed to irritate everyone in the whole house. Is this kind of user experience really a good idea for Facebook?

Some of you may have noticed that, a short while back, Facebook added a new ‘ping’ sound to notify you when you receive a post. It sounds like this

The chord the notes play is Fmaj7, and it’s made up of the notes F, A, C, and E, and spells the word ‘FACE’. Apparently, this is a happy accident. It’s actually based on the ring-tone of an old-fashioned (ie analogue) telephone.

Here’s what Everett Katigbak, an early brand designer for Facebook, had to say about it on Quora http://www.quora.com/Facebook-1/How-much-research-has-gone-into-developing-the-Facebook-ping-sound#

“The intervals are 2 major thirds, F-A, and C-E. The major third trill is what is used on old school telephones. There were several iterations on this, but the first instance where the chord was used, was as the video calling inbound ringtone. It is the base arpeggio in two pulses: F-A-C-E, F-A-C-E. We went with the two pulses because this resembles a majority of international ring variations.

It also contains a minor 3rd interval, A-C. Descending, this interval is the same used in the common doorbell (ding-dong), which conceptually reminded me of when a friend would show up at your house. It is also the quintessential “DIINNNNEERRR” or “LAASSSIIIEEE” call out, which again, is a very nostalgic pattern.”

Irritating people is never a good idea

Musicology aside, I think what Everett is missing is the fact that old-school telephones were really annoying. There was only ever one in the house, and it was in the downstairs hall. That meant no one was ever near it when it rang, because the hall was cold, draughty and uncomfortable. So the ring had to be loud enough to be heard throughout the house, and irritating enough to make the person at the top of the house tramp down the stairs and pick up the phone before shouting to whoever the call was for.

Now, why ever should Facebook need an irritating ringtone?

It used to be that Facebook held everyone’s attention all the time. (I remember a colleague of mine being told off by her boss because she’d received an average of 700 email notifications of Facebook comments every month for the last 12 months.) It was seriously sticky back in those days.

It certainly didn’t need a ringtone to irritate people into paying it attention.

But now, apparently, it does. And there can only be one reason for that: because people have stopped paying Facebook attention. Yes, they’re still on Facebook, but they’re no longer on Facebook. Their interest levels are declining, and they’re getting their social buzz elsewhere, like twitter, or Instagram, or more likely Pinterest. Their involvement is so passive that they need Facebook to ring them when something’s happening. That doesn’t betoken a genuinely high level of engagement, does it.

And that lack of engagement is a real problem for Facebook. They don’t control the content; their members’ social group does. And if that content gets uninteresting, then people are just going to drop off.

Terminal decline?

Almost everyone in the world who could realistically sign up for Facebook, already has done, so the figures for active users can only decline. And there’s precious little the media owner can do about that. It can’t make my former colleague Mary still use Facebook to tell her friends she’s had a really nice cup of coffee/meeting/night with a lovely man if she’s already telling them in some other way.

All it can do is make sure that on the rare occasions Mary does use Facebook to tell the world her momentous news, the world knows she has done so: by making an irritating ringing sound. I’m not sure this is what anyone would call a good user experience, is it?

Unfortunately it can’t stop them a) turning their sound down to ignore the irritating sound b) not signing into Facebook any more so that the irritating ringing sound is no longer a problem.

If a) and b) continue to happen, no amount of musicology is going to stop Facebook from losing money. Lots of it.

Why bad user experience is a bad problem

And that, more than the musical origins of the tone is what really matters here. User experience matters. Bad user experience matters more than good user experience, because it generates an instant response.

It’s like when you want to get someone’s attention. If you go around like a toddler shouting ‘Mummy’ and pulling at people’s metaphorical skirts, how likely are they to respond positively to you? But if you’re charming and winning and have something they want, like a lovely smile, you won’t need to pull at their skirts because they’ll already be coming to you.

Facebook needs to do something about the standard of its content, rather than creating irritating ringtones, however nostalgic they may sound. They need to get more people back using the service as a cornerstone of their life. Otherwise someone else is going to win.

Antisocial media

On Wednesday night, we were all sitting around the dinner table, wating to eat, when my 18-year-old son strode in late. He was very upset about something. My seven-year-old daughter asked him what was wrong.

“I’ve just seen a man having his head cut off by two terrorists in Woolwich.”

He’d found the footage by following a link from a tweet to footage that one of the unfortunate bystanders had shot.

My seven-year-old hasn’t slept properly since.

Obviously, this appalling murder has caused some people a lot more pain than a few nights’ lost sleep.

But it seems clear that this was the intention. To make the world watch the atrocity, whether it wanted to or not.

We’d heard the news by dinner time on Wednesday, but had decided not to mention it to the children. So had the BBC, it seemed. The way it reported the murder left quite a lot of the gruesome details in doubt. It had exercised editorial control as a broadcaster, just as we had done as parents. We had all failed.

With social media, as with our son, there is no editorial control.

That’s what the murderers were counting on. They knew that their brutal attack would spread round the world unconstrained by any system. That it would go straight from the bystanders’ smartphones and then onto the web, and rage like wildfire.

They even encouraged it to do so by giving ‘interviews’ to the people who were filming them; trying to justify their cowardly assault with some infantile relativist arithmetic of suffering.

It didn’t work, but an awful lot of people saw it not working. We haven’t yet had the infographics of how the story spread and how many people participated on twitter, facebook, tumblr and pinterest. But the infographics will come, don’t worry.

Back in the day when I worked with Greenpeace, they had two types of campaign activity. One type was the genuine direct action, where their activists would do something to stop something awful happening. You’ve seen the pictures: brave people in tiny RIBS getting between a harpoonist and a whale; people in white suits pulling up GM crops.

But they also had a category called direct communication. This was where what the activists were doing wasn’t really going to stop something bad, but it was going to draw attention to it – to give it what Mrs Thatcher might have called “the oxygen of publicity”. Activists would climb up a chimney, or chain themselves to an oil rig.

Direct communications were a whole lot easier to organise, and a whole lot harder to prevent, than direct actions. They involved fewer people and softer targets. Though back then Greenpeace tended to have to invite the media, or film the actions themselves.

It was an approach that worked well. And now the bad guys have appropriated it.

Make no mistake about it: what happened in Woolwich was a direct communication. Apart from the poor victim and his family – for whom I have nothing but the deepest sympathy – it touched hardly anyone directly. But the whole world knows it happened, and that it could happen again. Only two people seem to have been involved, and no one needed to invite the media. But it may well change the entire way that our armed forces behave in the UK.

As a friend of mine would say, One-nil to Satan. And what provided the assist for the goal was the ready availability of social media.

Compare the simplicity of this outrage to that of 9/11. Then, would-be murderers had to train for years to be pilots, had to hijack aeroplanes, had to fly them into buildings. On Wednesday, they just rocked up to Woolwich barracks with a meat cleaver. They knew the public and twitter would do the rest.

Of course, it’s difficult to compare 9/11 with this outrage. Yes, the outcome that day in NYC was much more devastating, and many more people were slaughtered. But the risks involved in organising it were much greater. It’s difficult to see how intelligence services could have infiltrated what seems to have been a ‘cell’ of two loons, though already they are being blamed for not having rounded them up earlier.

The only comparable event was the bomb at the Boston Marathon, but that was a direct action, and social media blurred what had really happened. And then the authorities took the network down. They exercised editorial control.

And that is probably what will happen here next time. Because of course there will always be a next time, especially when an action has been so effective.

Because this hideous crime certainly has been effective. Look at Facebook now. It’s full of anti-muslim nonsense and prejudice, thanks to the bigots and loons who will take any opportunity to fly their fascist flags. So if the terrorists have achieved one thing, it’s to make a sensible debate about the issues impossible. In fact, it’s more like two deaf men shouting at each other than any kind of debate at all.

So next time we’ll lose our ability to communicate. It’ll be just another erosion of our liberty, brought about by terrorists. But one that may at least help my seven-year-old sleep better at night.