Friday, 18 September 2009

The Art of Unnecessary Innovation

Yesterday I collected a Lexus IS 220 from a compound near Coventry to take home for the night and then deliver to a dealership in Oldbury this morning. I had never driven this model before and when I was handed the key I realised, with a certain sinking feeling, that it was not a key at all, just a small black plastic fob.

There are several makes of car nowadays that have 'keyless' ignition systems. Some require the fob to be fitted into a slot in the dashboard somewhere, before a button can be pressed to start the engine. Some will not let you start the engine at all unless you have your foot on the clutch, or the brake pedal. Others will only start if you press the button for the right length of time - press it for too long and you will instigate an 'instrument check', which involves a few seconds of flashing lights and messages on the dashboard before the whole thing goes dark again. The only thing that all of these systems have in common is that even when you have figured out exactly what hoops you have to jump through in order to start the vehicle it will never be any quicker or easier than just putting a key in the ignition and then turning it.

(In case you're wondering, the combination for the Lexus turned out to be a foot on the clutch and then one quick press of the start button.)

It's hard not to think that there are a lot of people employed in car design these days who have run out of ideas for making genuine improvements and who have resorted to endless tinkering and tampering instead in the hope that their superiors might not realise that they are no longer performing any useful function.

I recently picked up a vehicle, whose make I can no longer remember, and was driving through Birmingham with my bag on the passenger seat. At one point, as I rounded a bend, my bag moved slightly. This caused a hidden sensor somewhere to deduce that my bag was a living, breathing passenger, who ought to be wearing a seat belt. This in turn set off a flashing red light on the dashboard and a loud continuous pinging. There was nowhere to pull over and so the only way to stop the alarm was to reach across, while driving, and fasten a seat belt around an inanimate object.

I wonder if this uber-safety measure has yet resulted in anyone becoming safely embedded in the front of an oncoming vehicle.

On another occasion I was driving north to Scotland along the M6. It was very early in the morning and the road were deserted. Let's just say I may have been traveling in excess of 70mph. In the distance I spotted a police patrol car on a bridge and immediately braked hard, hoping that I had slowed down quickly enough to be able to glide inconspicuously past the officers. But the car turned out to contain an on-board nanny which had other ideas. It decided that everyone in the vicinity needed to be aware of how sharply I had braked, and automatically put on the hazard warning lights. By the time I had realised what had happened, and then found the button to turn them off again, the bridge with the patrol car on it was already in my rear view mirror.

Yesterday, I arrived home with the Lexus, pressed the button on the fob to lock it, and nothing happened. I tried pressing the button just once, then double-clicking it and then holding it down, and yet the vehicle remained resolutely unlocked. I eventually concluded that since there was nothing of value in there and no visible buttons on the doors to show that they were open, I didn't really need to solve the mystery and left it unlocked.

I returned to it this morning to find that it would not start - the battery was drained to the point where even the dash lights would not come on. The AA man who eventually arrived to jump-start it suggested that it had probably been picking up a signal from the fob in the house and that this all-night communication had been enough to run the battery down.

Of course there are ways around all of these pointless innovations - make sure you always put a seat belt around anything on the passenger seat, and make sure you know where the hazard warning light switch is. And, if you are determined to buy a Lexus IS 220, all you have to do is buy another car as well so that you can transport the fob to another address a safe distance away every night and then retrieve it in the morning. Just make sure this extra car isn't also a Lexus, otherwise the process will never end.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Strange World of Forex

The wage I get for working as a trade plater varies a lot depending on how many vehicles I deliver and how many miles I drive, but generally it ranges from adequate to abysmal. For a while now I've been doing other bits and pieces to top up my earnings. Recently, the main one of these extra-curricular activities has been ‘matched betting’, a system by which you take advantage of the free bets and other bonuses that bookmakers offer as incentives to open an account with them. There are ways of guaranteeing yourself a profit from these regardless of the outcome of the events that you bet on. The only problem with this is that you eventually start to run out of new bookmakers to sign up with (I now have accounts with over fifty of them.)

As a possible replacement for this I have been learning about spread betting on the foreign exchange markets (forex). This basically involves betting on whether the pound will rise or fall in value against another currency. For each point that it moves in your chosen direction you win a certain amount, and for each point that it moves in the other direction you lose that same amount.

I know nothing about economics, and whilst researching forex I've come across some odd facts. Did you know that seventy percent of Britain's Gross Domestic Product now comes from 'servicing' ? I'm still not sure exactly what this means but we are clearly no longer a nation that spends much time making anything anymore.

On an average day over three trillion dollars is traded in forex – more than twenty times the total of all the other financial markets put together. Here’s another odd fact - ninety percent of this trading is not done by institutions or individuals who have any use for the currency they are buying or selling, instead it is pure speculation. And another - most of this speculative trading is not carried out by human beings but is executed automatically by ‘bots’ – software which analyses previous price movements and then predicts future ones.

With stocks and shares it's possible for the big traders, hedge funds etc, to influence prices to suit their own ends, but this cannot be done with forex, the market is just too large. This lack of control makes it more likely that exchange rates will move up and down in recognisable patterns making it possible, apparently, to consistently make money if you adopt a system that suits the currencies and timeframes you are trading in.

So, if it's that easy why isn't everyone doing it? Most likely it will turn out not to be that easy. But on the other hand there clearly are a lot of people already doing it. It's worth noting that even in the ‘mugs game’ of conventional gambling there are systems such as arbitrage and each-way thieving which are reliable enough in the long run that if a bookmaker realises what you are doing they will usually pay you the compliment of closing your account.

There is a part of me that wants this plan to work well enough for me to be able to give up plating and be free from the downsides of the job – the stress of dealing with my stressed-out controller, a vindictive public transport system, those staff at car dealerships who save their charm for the people who might want to buy something from them, and those middle class homeowners who can't wait to ask me for some identification when I arrive on their doorsteps to collect their vehicles.

Imagine if I could make a living just sitting at home trading currencies? I would never have to pretend to like anyone again.

But as a former know-it-all left wing activist there is also a part of me that is uneasy about the idea of making money without actually doing anything to earn it. And where would the money really come from? If I made £100 in the forex markets would I have won it from some other speculator who made the wrong guess, or does the whole of this great tide of speculation have some wider impact? Would I be a smart gambler or a small time capitalist?

But anyway, all I’ve achieved in three months of trading with a demo account is to lose one hundred and ten pretend pounds, so maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about the moral dilemmas of joining the idle rich just yet.