Monday, 21 March 2016

What will Apple ruin this time?

Today, at ten o'clock PDT (five o'clock this afternoon), Apple will host a 'Keynote' event on their website.  I suppose I ought to be excited – after all, I use Apple products, and I love them.  Instead, I feel an impending sense of doom.

Ever since Apple killed off the iPod Classic (the only real iPod) in 2014, I have suspected that Apple CEO Tim Cook treats these events as some sort of social experiment, to see just how much Apple can inconvenience and irritate their consumers before they abandon the tech giant altogether and switch to another brand.  So, instead of launching exciting, innovative, cool new products – like they used to – Apple now focus on making people's lives harder by (for example) changing the shape of the chargers for their laptops and phones, so you constantly have to buy new ones, and it's harder to lend one to your friends.

The latest rumours about the next iPhone suggest that Apple will ditch the standard 3.5mm headphone socket, meaning everybody in the world will have to buy a new set of headphones in a non-standard size – because obviously, that's what consumers really want.  (Not.)  Y'know, the same way everyone was crying out for a computer which couldn't play DVDs.

So, what pointless and inconvenient change will Apple foist on us in their event later today?  Maybe they're going to launch a computer without a screen – and announce that they are ceasing support for screens within twelve months, and that soon no computers will have screens…

The Apple Watch will no longer have an actual strap, you'll just have to balance it on your wrist and keep very still; but at least it will now come with a set of Apple Cufflinks (for £179 extra), which will be WiFi enabled, for some reason…

And the new iOS for iPhone and iPad will change the direction you 'swipe' across the screen to unlock your device from left-to-right, to right-to-left.  Just because.

And we'll still all just nod along with it all, and queue up at their weird shiny stores to buy the stupid things.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Premier League thinking cap

Today's big news in the world of football.

"Does this go far enough?" asks BBC Sport, of the news that price caps are to be trialled in the Premier League.  My initial reaction was that actually, it goes rather too far.

It may be a controversial view amongst football fans, but I have long been of the opinion that football clubs, as privately-run organisations, should have the right to charge what they like for the services or commodities they offer (including tickets to matches) – and that what is a "fair" price for tickets is determined by what people are prepared to pay to go to a game.  I have vocally defended the rights of clubs to raise their ticket prices, on various football discussion forums – normally in the face of near unanimous opposition from fans whose view of the matter is romanticised, rather than rationalised – and told people that if they think the cost of tickets is too high, the answer is to stop buying them.  This, after all, is how markets work; prices are set by what people are willing to pay for whatever is on offer.

But the more I think about the matter, the more I question my steadfast defence of the laws of supply-and-demand, in regards to ticket sales in football.  I am instinctively pro-free markets, and against intervention and price control, I make no bones about that.  But how "free" really is the "market" for football tickets?

After all, can the laws of supply-and-demand be said to apply equally to football, when the attitudes of "consumers" are so fundamentally different from in other areas?  In light of today's news about price caps on away tickets, I have been giving the issue some considerable thought; I don't claim to have any conclusive answers about the economics of football, not by a long way, but I am going to set out a few of my thoughts on the topic here, and invite comments – to my mind, this is a fascinating discussion, which we (as football supporters) should be talking about more openly.

So, let us first consider a "standard" model for a "free" market.  The same products or services are offered by multiple providers, and this creates competition in the market – different companies producing, say, washing powder are competing with each other for the same customers, and this encourages each company to produce better quality washing powder at a lower cost, in the hope of attracting consumers to purchase their products over the rivals' similar offerings.

In this way, what washing powder is "worth" is set by the people buying it, not by the people selling it – if the majority of consumers decide they won't pay Company A's higher prices, because they don't think it offers any real benefits over the cheaper washing powder offered by Company B, Company A will be forced to lower their prices (or prove that their product is worth the extra money) due to a lack of sales as consumers choose Company B instead, believing their product to be better value.

Now, contrast this with the "market" for football clubs.  At first glance, it is similar to the washing powder scenario; there are many football clubs, all around the country, all offering the opportunity for consumers to pay to watch football – some offering higher quality, some offer lower quality, some have high prices, some have lower prices, etc.

But this is a false equivalency.  It assumes that "consumers" of football are simply paying to watch football, and that they don't much care who is playing – just as consumers of washing powder probably aren't too bothered by which logo is on the box, as long as their laundry is clean and fresh.  No, unlike washing powder users, for football supporters the "brand" (ie. which team is playing) is all important; a lifelong Spurs fan (for example) isn't suddenly going to go and watch Leyton Orient play instead because the tickets are a bit cheaper – for him the important thing isn't simply watching football, it is watching Spurs.  And there isn't another Tottenham Hotspur Football Club just down the road, offering consumers the chance to watch the same team play for slightly less money.  In other words, the football "market" has an illusion of "competition" – but in reality, each club actually has a monopoly over its own "brand".

Brand loyalty exists in many areas of the market.  But nowhere is it so visceral as when it comes to supporting a particular football club.  The feelings many football fans have for their club go well beyond simple loyalty to a certain "brand" – the idea of football supporters as consumers who are willing to switch supplier to save money is ludicrous.  As such, it is difficult to apply the laws of supply-and-demand to the football "market" in exactly the same way as other areas.

Of course, "consumers" still have a choice.  But that choice is a binary one – either go to the game, or don't go.  No one is being forced to pay for something they feel is not worth the asking price, and there is an argument to be made that "consumer power" (ie. not buying tickets deemed to be "overpriced", and thus sending a club a message about pricing structures through the medium of lost ticket revenue) is still a better way of tackling the issue than imposing price controls.  But football blurs the boundaries of the way people make decisions; there is a huge cultural element to football, and those of us who wish to approach this discussion with cerebral objectivity would be foolish to ignore that.

I imagine (with no data to hand) that a not insignificant proportion of football fans would still prioritise going to matches over what might rationally be considered more "essential" expenses, if it came to that choice.  That is how serious the game – and perhaps more pertinently, the club – is to many people.  A central tenet of support for free markets must surely be a belief that people are able to make their own decisions, and a commitment to allowing them to do so; is it not therefore necessary to at least attempt to understand how they make those decisions?

The "value" of football to many people is more than simply a monetary value.  Much as my natural response might be not to interfere, and to allow the free market to take its course, I am forced to accept that the nature of football, and it's importance to many people, means the market choices may not truly be "free".

That is not to say that I am wholeheartedly endorsing the price cap on away tickets in the Premier League – I think there could be complications that arise from this, and that it could end up creating as many problems as it solves – but even if it goes against my instincts, more in-depth thought on the matter has meant I have had to concede that there is at the very least a decent case for giving it a try.  It will be very interesting to monitor the situation over the next few seasons, as the price cap is trialled, and then reevaluate things.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

How the SNP ruined referenda for all of us

As a bit of a politics nerd (yes, I admit it), I have been looking forward to the pageantry around this referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.  There’s something about these political events – whatever they are ultimately about – which thrills and fascinates.

The debates!  The interviews!  The triumphs!  The cock-ups!  Staying up all night eating curry and watching David Dimbleby filling time as the results slowly filter in!  I love it.

But this excitement has been spoilt somewhat by those killjoys in the SNP.  Ever since the Scottish people’s own referendum on their national future in September 2014, those who campaigned for Scotland to leave the UK have made it their business to ruin not just this referendum, but all referenda.  Never again can we sip from the cup of a national plebiscite, without tasting the taint of Scottish nationalism.

The simple fact is that the tactics of the SNP and their supporters have changed the way that referenda in this country are fought – and, in my view, not for the better.

But in order to understand how this affects the upcoming referendum on the EU, let us first briefly examine the two key faults at the core of the way the SNP operates.

The first is that the SNP and its party machinery are seemingly unable to view politicians and activists (of any party) as individuals.  This is a topic I have touched on before.  The SNP is the only party in the UK whose rules actively prohibit its MPs from speaking out against party policy.  There can be no ‘rebels’; no dissenters; no brave individuals who put principles before career prospects to defy the party whip.  Not in the SNP.

No, the gradually dwindling numbers of SNP MPs in the House Of Commons (we all know it started out as fifty-six, but two have already been suspended by the party…) speak with one voice on every issue.  All of the (almost) one-and-a-half million Scottish voters who chose the SNP at the 2015 General Election might just as well be represented in Westminster by one single person, voting on all issues according to Nicola Sturgeon’s orders.  (Maybe that’s something they should look into?  It might at least save a bit on Parliamentary travel expenses.)

The second is the SNP’s unshakeable belief that the only thing which really matters is Scotland’s independence.  Any other political problems are subsumed by this one great issue.  Tax?  Health?  Education?  Infrastructure?  It doesn’t matter what the challenges facing these policy areas – all will be solved in the blink of an eye, come Independence Day.  And, until independence, there is nothing that can be done about any of them, so they may as well go hang.

These two central conceits were underlined for me recently by a conversation I had with an SNP activist while a protest march against the Trident nuclear weapons system was occurring in London.  I challenged something that he wrote on Twitter about the future of Trident; his response was, weirdly, about Scotland.  Apparently, I was wrong about Trident because “I didn’t understand the Scottish people”; I tried to say that I wasn’t talking about Scotland as a nation, or as a people, but that I was responding to what he had posted on the topic of nuclear missiles – but he was unable to make the distinction.

Within a few Tweets, our Nationalist friend had successfully twisted my disagreeing with one specific thing he had said about Trident into me being somehow anti- the entire country of Scotland and its population.  Because no issue, and no policy, can be discussed without it inexorably transforming into The Scottish Matter.  And because ‘The Scottish People’ (whose ‘mindset’ I was assured I ‘didn’t understand’) are one homogeneous groupthinking bloc, rather than over five million individuals representing a plurality of opinion across all areas of policy.  Such is the SNP mentality: everything is about Scotland, always – and all Scots think alike, on every issue.

So where does this leave our European plebiscite?  A referendum in this country has traditionally transcended ordinary party politics.  Faced with an issue deemed to be of such burning national importance that it is not enough for our elected representatives simply to vote on our behalves in Parliament, as is normal for most day-to-day political decisions, the usual rules and ways of operating are thrown out of the window.  The party whips are suspended, and the campaign is not split along party lines like at a general election.  Strange alliances are forged – fractious, often, but motivated.  This is not ‘politics as usual’.

The SNP, it appears, cannot understand this.  The fact that the ‘Better Together’ campaign – which pushed for, and eventually won, a majority ‘No’ vote in Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 – was supported by all three of the major UK political parties has become a standard campaigning tool for the Nationalists.  That Labour (traditionally the SNP’s main opposition in Scotland) had campaigned on this issue alongside the Conservatives makes them – apparently – ‘no better than the Tories’.  (And what worse insult could there possibly be, for anyone whose understanding of politics reaches no further than the end of his own nose?!)

Once again, we see how the importance of the independence debate sweeps aside all other concerns, in the eyes of the SNP faithful – that Labour and the Tories agree on Scotland’s constitutional future makes them politically identical, no matter how many other major policy areas they vehemently disagree on.  “Who cares if Labour and the Conservatives disagree on far more policies than they agree on?!”, say the SNP supporters; they agree on the only one which actually matters, so they can be lumped in together for all time.

(Of course this ignores even the basic maths of a referendum.  With only two possible outcomes to choose from – ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – there is bound to be some overlap in campaigning.  There are simply not enough answers on the ballot paper for all the political parties involved to have one each, so you will, at some point, inevitably find yourself on the same side as politicians who are normally your opponents.  But then, figures aren’t exactly the SNP’s strong point, are they…?)

“Well, what a short-sighted, obstinate, overly simplistic view of party politics!” you might very well be thinking now.  Well, yes.  Exactly.  And yet this pervasive, barely-literate nonsense is now shaping the way our politicians are gearing up for the referendum on the European Union.

Keen not to be tarred with the same brush as their sworn political enemies, simply because they happen to feel the same about one point of policy, MPs now seem reticent to engage in the very cross-party campaigning which makes a referendum campaign different, and worth having at all.  The fear of ‘sharing a platform’ with one’s usual political enemies – and the damage this could do to one’s own political image and career in the future – is distracting from the more pressing matter of actually campaigning for the result one believes is best for the country.

If this – or any – matter is of enough significance to be put to the population as a whole to vote on, rather than being left to representatives in the Commons and the Lords, is it not also important enough to put aside party political bickering and campaign alongside whoever happens to want the same outcome as you?

In a referendum such as this, you don’t get to choose your allies – you work with whoever happens to agree with you as to the best path for the country to take.  And you should reasonably expect to do so without the threat of this being held up as a stain on your character in years to come, once the referendum is over and political life has gone back to normal.

If some cabinet ministers believe Britain should remain in the EU, while other ministers feel strongly we should leave, they should be free to campaign on whichever side of the argument they wish.  It is not ‘weak’ of the Prime Minister to allow his ministers this freedom – and it is not very edifying to see politicians from other parties attempting to portray him as such, choosing petty political points-scoring over the matter at hand.

And if a politician from any party finds himself by some happenstance on the same side of this debate as a politician from another party (which – as I have said – is mathematically certain to happen, given the limited number of options for campaigning), this does not suddenly make the two politicians, or their two parties, indistinguishable from each other on all matters.  It would be sheer folly to suppose it did.  And yet, that has been the SNP’s take on things for over two years, now – and it is a view starting to permeate the mainstream national consciousness.

I can’t help but feel sad that the SNP’s small-minded, parochial mentality is being allowed to set the agenda for a national question about which many people feel very strongly – and as a result, we are all being denied a proper referendum campaign which truly cuts across, rather than entrenches, party lines.