Friday, June 24, 2011

Having an author sign her work

Book authors sometimes go on book reading trips (akin to a musician's "gig"): they travel from bookshop to bookshop, read a little from their current work, then sit behind a trestle table and sign copies of their books, preferably their latest novel which the consumer has bought this moment from the bookshop. Everybody profits: the author has sold another copy (more royalties, although one wonders how many books outsell their advance), the bookshop has sold another book and the customer has a signed copy of the book. 

In the spirit of Dan Ariely, let's look at the final transaction rationally. A book signed by its author is worth more in the market place than the same book unsigned, although one might argue that there is no logical reason for this. The contents of the book are still the same; the story or the information contained within have not changed. Yet still people are prepared to pay more for a book signed by its author (presumably in the second hand market). Even stranger, I imagine that most of the people who go to a book reading and ask the author to sign their copy have no intention whatsoever of selling their signed copy, so this apparent addition to the book's value will never be realised.

Presumably people do this for the intrinsic value of the act: the fact that they have a signed copy of a book means that they met the author and for a minute basked in her halo. This gives them pleasure every time that they read the book, show it to their friends or even remember the event. 

I wrote a few months ago about purchasing guitarist Mick Abrahams' autobiography. I bought the book discounted from the Book Depository thus saving money (a rational decision), but I could have bought it from Mick's website. I could also have paid more for the book and have it signed. As I wrote then, I wasn't aware at the time of this arrangement, so let's assume for the sake of argument that I haven't bought the book yet. I have three options: the standard price, the discounted price and the premium price (book + dedication). The discounted price is obviously better than the standard price, but what about the premium price? Although the signed book will be worth more in the secondhand market (and of course, I also paid more for it!), I won't be getting the intrinsic value of knowing that I met the author.

I am not always consistent. Abrahams belongs to a set of musicians who have learnt that they can increase their earnings if they offer signed cds at a slightly higher price. I confess that I took advantage of this with an archival recording of Hatfield and the North as well as with a dvd of the Bruford group. This arrangement allowed me to get Pip Pyle's autograph while he was still alive. 

On the other hand, there were times when I used to order Fairport Convention cds direct from the group and ask them to autograph the booklet, saying that I wouldn't be able to see them this year and ask them to autograph in person. One wag once wrote on this subject that a non-autographed FC cd from recent years would probably be worth more than an autographed cd, presumably because of its rarity.

So are we behaving rationally when asking an author to sign her work? If the work has cost more because of the signature yet we have no intention of selling the book, then in terms of classic economic extrinsic value, we have behaved irrationally (we paid over the market price). But in terms of intrinsic value, we have behaved rationally. But of course, it's always better to get the author to sign for free and then we benefit both extrinsically and intrisically as well as behaving rationally.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

President's Conference / 2

I suppose that the story begins about three weeks ago when the Occupational Psychologist (OP) asked me whether I wanted to go to a lecture by Dan Ariely. She had given me his book, "Predictably Irrational", about a year before and I had enjoyed reading it (even though she gave me the Hebrew translation), so I jumped at the chance at seeing the man.

About a week later, I received via email an invitation to the President's Conference; whilst I was flattered that I had received the invitation, I was bewildered as to why I had received it. Only a few days later in a conversation with the OP, I discovered that Dan Ariely would be giving his lecture within the framework of the conference. Even so, it was difficult at first to find where and when he was due to appear; it later transpires that he was a popular guest who was assigned several appearances.

After I wrote yesterday's blog about the opening evening, I considered my options. I realised that it might be better to turn up after Ariely had finished a lecture than before. As he was due to appear at 11:30am, I wouldn't have to leave work at 10am but could delay my departure until noon. Whilst I was mulling this over, I had a brainwave and sent him an email detailing my failure to meet him the previous evening and asking whether we could arrange a time and a place to meet. Whilst there was a good chance that the email would be ignored (because it was sent to his university address), there was also a good chance that I would receive a reply.

Two minutes after sending the email, I received a call on my cellphone from an unrecognised number. Could it be Dan himself on the phone? Not quite: it was the OP asking how I came home the previous evening and what my further plans were. We were intending to go today (Thursday) but it transpired that Dan was appearing in yet another panel yesterday afternoon at 4:30pm, a much more congenial time. We agreed to set off at 3:30pm.

After the phone call, I returned to my work environment and discovered that I had received a reply from Dan saying that he would be available after all his lectures; he also enclosed his mobile telephone number in case that we didn't meet!

Fast forward a few hours; the OP, her family and I are sitting in a much smaller hall, watching Israeli television journalist (and lawyer) Ilana Dayan. She will be interviewing five people, one of whom will be Dan Ariely. Her guests were (in order) Arieh Der'i (a meteor in Israeli politics who was convicted of receiving a bribe and who has just returned from a five year cooling off period), Lord David Trimble (Member of the British Parliament ; First Minister of Northern Ireland; Former Leader, Ulster Unionist Party; 1998 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate), Professor Larry Summers (Charles W. Eliot University Professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; President Emeritus, Harvard University; Former Director of the White House National Economic Council, Obama Administration), Jibril Rajoub (Palestinian Authority, Senior Fatah leader; Former head, Palestinian Security Force; Member, Fatah Central Committee; Head, Palestinian Football Federation and the Palestine Olympic Committee) and Dan the Man.

All of the first four interviews were very interesting, Lord Trimble especially. But as their contents were political and this is not a political blog, I won't go into what they said. Dan Ariely, on the other hand, seemed slightly out of place with his heavyweight confreres; he told a few more anecdotes from his book and went into more detail about his accident, his recovery and his interest in pain.

Once the session was over, I quickly walked the few yards which separated the speakers and dignified guests from the hoi polloi. Someone had got to Dan before me, also with a copy of his book, so I had to wait before I had a chance to speak. Then someone else entered the conversation, asking how long Dan would be in Israel and where else he would be speaking. Dan gave this person a few details and then said to send him an email; at this point I intervened and said that Dan answers his emails very promptly! I then gave him (Dan) my books and he began to sign. He commented that the books were in English, and I replied that I did have the first book in Hebrew but it took me so long to read that I preferred to read the English versions (I believe that the books were first written in English and then translated into Hebrew). 

At this point, I asked why Dan had spoken in English all through the interview (simultaneous translation into Hebrew via headphones) whilst we were speaking in Hebrew now. I briefly considered that he might have been denying his Israeli roots, but this wasn't the reason. He asked Ilana Dayan (who was standing behind me) why indeed the interview was conducted in English, and she replied that she had been asked to do so. I note that about 75% of the interview with Jibril Rajoub was conducted in Hebrew, the rest being in English. Strange.

As the session had overrun, the ushers were firmly ushering us out of the hall so they could set up for the next session, meaning that my brief meeting had concluded. As I turned away, I obviously made some strange body movement for suddenly a muscle in my chest contracted and stayed contracted, giving me severe pain for about fifteen minutes until the muscle relaxed. During this time, I was vigorously rubbing my chest and looking for a place where I could sit down without being mobbed.

Only when I got home did I find out what Dan had written in the books. As 70% of his body had been severely burned in his accident, he still has problems writing ("my hands don’t work very well, and typing causes a great amount of pain", his email) so I wasn't surprised that it was very hard to read what he had written. I think that in "Predictably Irrational", he had written "Irrationally yours", and his dedication in "The upside of Irrationality" appears below. I was slightly surprised to notice that my name appears in both dedications as he hadn't asked me my name; he obviously read it off my name tag.

Next time around: my thoughts on getting authors and musicians to sign books/records.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

President's Conference

I spent yesterday afternoon/early evening in the Jerusalem Conference Centre, where I was attending the opening plenum session of the President's Conference. The conference, which runs over three days, is by invitation only, but judging by the 4,000 strong crowd, it's not clear what the criteria for invitation were (especially as I had wangled an invitation).

The opening session was entitled "My recipe for a better tomorrow", and the opening speaker was Prof. Dan Ariely who is a behavioural psychologist and the main reason for me attending. His fifteen minute talk was mainly taken from his book "The upside of irrationality" which I had bought (and read) about a month ago, so he didn't really provide me with any new information. His talk centred around how we tend to chose options which gratify us now instead of choosing harder or more painful options which will benefit us in the future. As he puts it, "How many people ate more than they should have this week? How many people exercised less than they should have?". Ariely told about an episode in his life when he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and was told to inject himself with interferon; this treatment caused sickness, vomiting and general malaise. He managed to minimise the negative psychological affects of the treatment by combining them with an activity which he found extremely pleasant, namely watching movies. What does this have to do with his recipe for a better tomorrow? Better to do the unpleasant things today so that we might have a better tomorrow than do the pleasant things today (which might well lead to a worse tomorrow).

Second up was Sir Martin Sorrell; his talk was a slightly hit and miss affair. First he would mention an interesting subject, talk about it for a few minutes and then say that he wasn't here to talk about this subject. Eventually he did get onto the subject which he was to talk about: city administration. Apparently, in fifty years time there will be about 350 cities with a population greater than one million, and the task of administering these cities will be immense. He believes than government and local authorities must find a way of working together and improving the face of society (my words).

Next was Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Whilst this talk was very interesting, it had little to do with a recipe for a better tomorrow (or maybe it was because I was nodding off at this stage).

Then came the speaker who was added at the last minute but seemed to be the most popular of all: Shakira. I had expected an air-head, but she turned out to be more than sensible. Her recipe for a better tomorrow was education, education, education. She talked about her visit that morning to a joint Israeli/Palestinian school (footage of this was shown on the evening news) and the work that her foundation has done in Columbia: every child who enrolls in school stands a much better chance of not becoming a terrorist or a drug smuggler.

Closing the show was American comic Sara Silverman. I have to admit that this name caused me to raise an eyebrow when I saw it listed in the programme, and true to form, this part of the evening was the lowest. It was totally irrelevant (and slightly hard to understand) but a short clip made the evening news. Obviously there is more publicity attached to being a comic actress than a successful behavioural economist, a successful businessman or the founder of Wikipedia.

After the session ended, there was an hour or so of 'mingling', during which I hoped to meet Dan Ariely and have him sign my copies of his books. Unfortunately, the halls were so crowded with people that I never saw him (he might have already left the building). I did come face to face with the current Israeli Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman (I couldn't think of his name; all I could remember was Yuval Ne'eman, who was a successful particle physicist and science minister before dying) and the one time Minister for Pensioners, Rafi Eitan, but no Dan Ariely.

Professor Ariely is scheduled to take part in another plenary session today at 11:30am, entitled "Who will triumph in the marketing battle of tomorrow" and again on Thursday afternoon in a session entitled "how well does the science of economics understand economics". My MBA training has prepared me well for both subjects, but unless I get extremely bored at work by 10am, I think that I will skip today and go again tomorrow. Of course, there is no guarantee that I will get to meet Ariely, but logically the more times that I go, the higher are my chances. Also, yesterday probably had the highest attendance due to the presence of President Peres, Tony Blair and of course Shakira.

Here is someone else's take on Ms Silverman. It just goes to show how two people can be at the same event and interpret in completely differently.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Herpes simplex

My wife suffers from herpes simplex, aka cold sores. This is a viral infection which normally causes sores on her lower lip; it also causes her to feel lousy for several days. Unlike most viral infections, once the body has been infected with this virus, it can never be eradicated. Most of the time, the virus is dormant, but every now and then, normally at times of stress or when the immune system is weakened, the virus takes advantage of the situation by waking up and placing a greater strain on her immune system.

A few weeks ago, I was idly googling the subject when I came across the fact that there is some form of treatment with light which while not killing the virus, can at least shorten the virus' active period. A bit more googling and I found this. Whilst I might be sceptical of the idea, there seemed to be empirical research that treatment by UV B light was effective in shortening the period that the herpes virus was active.

After a quick consultation with my wife, we decided to buy a 'machine' - it's about the size of a pocket torch, so calling it a machine is slightly misleading. I ordered it via Ebay, where a new one seemed the cheapest option, even after allowing for postage. 

The machine arrived after a week, ironically on the same day that a new sore appeared on my wife's lip. Immediately she inserted the enclosed 9v battery into the machine and used it. The instructions say that it should be used every twelve hours for three days (six treatments) although one can use it more frequently. After three and a half days, my wife pronounced the sore gone. 

So whilst maybe the machine does not totally live up to its advertising pitch, let us not forget that everyone is different and that there are no guarantees in medicine. What is clear is that the machine worked faster than putting ointment onto the sore, and it's more aesthetically pleasing (the sore is bad enough, but an ugly mound of white cream on the sore is even worse). I think that we can definitely call this one a win and so I can recommend this machine should one suffer from herpes simplex.

Monday, June 13, 2011


One of my favourite books is Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon". I bought this in 2000 (that was the year that we visited Scotland, and I remember buying in Inverness a few other Stephenson novels on the strength of this book) and it has been worth several rereadings over the years. Bringing together a thread from the second world war (Alan Turing, the Enigma machine along with an updated version of 'The man who never was') along with a thread of modern day computer wizards who invent a global currency, there was something in the book for everybody.

Today I spotted an article in the online Guardian newspaper which is a direct development of the Cryptonomicon's currency vault - the Bitcoin. As in the book, governments are exceedingly unhappy with this new kind of currency, but will have less ability to cope, as the real life bitcoin is decentralised.

Life imitates art. The future is here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Yoni Rechter in concert

Today's story starts in late September 1973 (or maybe early October); barely 17, I had come with a group from Habonim to spend a year in Israel, in what had yet to be called a gap year. One day I heard an effervescent guitar riff emanating from someone's room; upon enquiring, I was told that it was "Slippery Boogie", or more accurately "Sipurei Poogy" (Poogy tales). This was the first record by a group of young Israelis, most of whom had been in the same Army entertainment troupe that I had seen the previous year.

In the first song on their record, their keyboardist took a ferocious and ambitious solo which took me completely by surprise, so good was it. The Fender Rhodes also had a solo in the second song, but after that, the keyboardist took more of a supporting role. When I managed to understand the record's sleeve, I discovered that the name of the keyboardist was Yoni Rechter.

A few years later, I knew very well who Yoni Rechter was. I emigrated to Israel in late September 1978, and within a fortnight of my arrival, I took the bus to Tel Aviv in order to see Rechter play with Yehudit Ravitz in what seemed to be a magical evening (their show was later preserved on record). I thought that I was in heaven, but unfortunately didn't manage to see Rechter again for several years.

I tried counting how many times I have seen him in performance: Poogy in 1974, 1978, possibly 1979 ("The sixteenth lamb"), 1982 (a post Lebanese-war show), three times in 1996, possibly in 1997 or 1998, and of course, two nights ago (otherwise I wouldn't be writing this!).

He released a not particularly successful record in late 1995 and 'toured' to support it in 1996, which is why I managed to see him so often. The first performance which I saw was an outside show near the caves of Bet Guvrin, a twenty minute drive. As the 'dressing room' was also outside, I 'went backstage'. First, all aquiver, I spoke with the late Eli Mohar, who wrote many lyrics for Yoni's songs. I remember telling him what great a pleasure it was to come to the performance and how pleased I was that Yoni was appearing again. Eli said to me "why don't you tell him yourself", and so I was led to meet one of Israel's top musicians. About a month or so later, the same show came to my kibbutz, so I had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with the entourage (they autographed discs, and somewhere there's a picture of Yoni - a giant - along with my eight year old (at the time) daughter, who barely came up to his midriff.

In 1990, Yoni Rechter gave a very successful performance at the Israel Festival, which was both shown on television (I recorded it to video then later transferred it to dvd) and recorded for disc, although as it happens, the television show is a different performance to the audio only show.

2011, and Rechter again is invited to appear at the same Jerusalem theatre where he appeared 21 years ago, again as part of the Israel Festival. This time, he was awarded a plaque as a 'favourite son of the festival'. Only about ten such plaques have been awarded, placing Rechter in the forefront of the Israeli entertainment world (as if we didn't know).

Whilst it is always a pleasure to see and hear Yoni Rechter in concert, I feel somewhat mean in writing that the choice of songs this time around wasn't particularly to my liking. A few guest artists appeared, meaning that Rechter's wonderful songs were diluted with other material. One of the encores - typically, the one which got the supportive audience boogying - was a rave up from the Sipurei Poogy record, one which doesn't really have much to do with Rechter. 

But I'm complaining about the 10% which is empty at the top of the cup; 90% was wonderful. I just hope that Rechter will be returning to the stage, instead of staying at home and writing songs for the theatre, for others, and sometimes for himself.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Post mortem on the HRM exam

This evening, the harvest festival, Shavu'ot, begins. Traditionally, every meal during the festival is based on cheese; this is one of the defining marks of Jewish festivals: each festival has its specific dish.

This morning, the HRM exam was held. As this evening is a festival, the morning was similar to a Friday morning, in which few people work. The train going to Tel Aviv had plenty of room, whereas the same train on a normal weekday would be packed. Similarly, once in Tel Aviv, the streets were quiet (although busy by 1pm).

This time around, three different subjects were being examined at the same time, which meant that there was a little confusion in the exam hall, while the invigilators made sure that everyone had the correct exam paper. There is a rule that no one is allowed out of the exam hall during the first forty five minutes (I'm not sure why); because of the late start, my bladder was already full and overflowing before I was allowed out for a pit stop - and one invigilator got worried because of the amount of time that I spent in the toilet.

The HRM exam consisted of three questions: two case studies, each worth 40 marks, and an essay question worth 20 marks. The case studies present a situation, possibly a report which someone has made on a situation regarding HRM, and the examinee, as the HRM expert, is supposed to comment and find all the mistakes, as well as adding the theoretical material. The practice case studies were fairly easy and all of them presented a report which had to be criticised. Unfortunately, today's case studies were not in the same mode.

The first case study was about a successful British clothing retailer who intends to open a few branches in France. The examinee was invited to comment about the retailer's recruitment and selection process (chapter five, I hear you saying). The first thing to do was to mention the six different criteria for selection processes (reliability, validity, fairness, development cost, application cost and applicability) and then to relate these criteria to the various processes. Apparently the French use different selection processes to the British; what does this mean? Also the French like graphology - which is an almost useless method in terms of validity. The main problem, as far as I could see, was fairness; cultural differences between British and French probably mean that the entire selection process would have to be checked. 

At the end of the answer, I threw in a few extra things which weren't about the selection process per se but rather about other problems which were likely to arise. I admit that this was (depending on one's choice of metaphor) a kitchen sink approach, throwing enough mud in the hope that some would stick, a shotgun approach. Even so, one does not get penalised for adding irrelevant material, and maybe the examiner has enough leeway to award a few extra marks for off the wall comments.

The second case study was a bit of a puzzler in that its material didn't seem to come from the course that we had been taught. It was about a junior health and safety manager who was supposed to attend a seminar explaining the company's new attitude of attending to the workers' psychological welfare. The junior manager 'wrote' a letter to an HR manager explaining his non-understanding of the seminar's content, and the examinee was supposed to write a letter back, explaining everything. The case study wasn't exactly difficult to complete but it wasn't much based on taught material, so in a sense the entire answer was a shot in the dark. There were a few bits which came from Total Quality Management (TQM, chapter 3), so these were definitely in the curriculum and easy to handle; there was also a hint about organisational culture.

The third, essay, question was short and simple: contrast the matching and Harvard models of HRM. This basically required regurgitating some material which had been taught in chapter 2. There are six criteria but I could only remember five. As the question asked one to contrast the models, I didn't go into any great depth about the models themselves nor about the criticisms about them; in retrospect, this may have been a mistake.

At the final revision meeting a few weeks ago, I asked our lecturer whether it would be necessary to learn the models. I asked this because he made a great thing about the models when we were learning them but after we did a few case studies, it became unclear how this material could be worked into the form of a case study. The lecturer thought about it then replied that the only way he could see that the material could be included would be if there were an essay question asking one to contrast the models. Lucky guess? 

The same lecturer asked me to send him my recollections of the questions after the exam. He is the person who will be marking our questions and will receive a marking guideline before he starts, so in retrospect his request seems unnecessary. Anyway, I sent him my recollections and alluded to the strangeness of the second question, adding that a few people with whom I spoke after the exam also commented on it. It will be interesting to see what his guidelines are (not that I expect him to send them to me...).

How well did I do? It's always slightly difficult to judge, and with such an open paper as this, it's more difficult than usual. I have no doubt that I passed but I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at a mark (although 70 seems reasonable). I'll find out in another few months when I recommence my studies with the Finance course.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Human resources management

I've been fairly quiet about my current MBA course, Human Resources Management. As far as the university is concerned, this is an optional course (the degree consists of seven compulsory and two optional courses), but as far as the Israeli Council for Higher Education is concerned, every MBA degree must include an HRM course. So I view the course as mandatory.

As I may have written before, about 50% of the course material is contained within the Organisational Behaviour course which I have already passed, so there is a certain familiarity with the material. In absolute terms, this course is only between a quarter and a third of the bulk of OB, so there isn't very much to learn anyway. What there is to learn seems fairly unstructured which makes learning it slightly harder.

In the past, I have complained about other exams requiring memory regurgitation; Project Management and Marketing spring to mind. As our lecturer says, HRM is a true second degree subject: one is given a text (some kind of personnel report) and then one has to comment upon it. In other words, one has to know and understand the textual material, but exam answers will require knowledge and understanding of the material, without necessarily quoting large swathes of it (of course, quoting the relevant material will award extra marks).

The exam will be held on Tuesday morning. I am fairly confident (I'm certainly not in the same mental state as I was prior to the marketing exam) but I am also wary of not treating the subject with sufficient respect.


I've just had the dubious pleasure of watching the televised version of Peter Robinson's novel "Aftermath", dubious in many ways. This is probably the hardest Inspector Banks novel to read, being the horrifying story of a male psychopath who sexually and physically tortured then killed four young girls, as well as the story of his wife who was caged, abused and raped by her parents as a child and grew up to be a worse psychopath than her husband ("he thought that he was using me but in fact I was using him").

Of all the Banks novels, ITV chose to dramatise this one, so I knew that watching the two part series would not be an easy matter. In the end, I think that the production company managed to tone down the horror of the story. It's difficult for me to judge because so many items were changed, it's almost as if the television programme exists sui genesis with no connection to the novel.

Obviously,  the story had to be edited, for there is no way that such a complicated narrative could be compressed into less than two hours. But leaving aside the edit, there were so many changes, some of them seemingly unnecessary.... For example, DCI Banks is frequently described as being short (just meeting the minimum height requirement for a policeman) with black curly hair, whereas one of his team, DC Winsome Jackman, is a black Jamaican woman over 6 feet tall. Thus Jackson should tower over Banks. Instead, Banks is played by Stephen Tomkinson whose height is 6' 2" and who towers over the actress playing Jackman. Banks is supposed to be a kindly policeman; he comes over as irascible and far from sympathetic.

For no apparent reason, the psychopathic Terence Payne is renamed Marcus Payne; on television he had an affair with neighbour Maggie Forrest (played with an Irish accent instead of a Canadian one), something which barely matters in the tv show and never existed in the book. Lucy Payne's solicitor is renamed at random. Annie Cabbot is only a DS when she and Banks meet for the first time in the Superintendent's office: true, when they first met in a book, she was a DS, but then she was serving in CID and not Complaints. In the book 'Aftermath', Cabbot is a DI (in Complaints); she and Banks are good friends and not meeting for the first time. Similarly Banks has been demoted: normally he is a DCI, but in the book he is promoted to 'acting Superintendent'; in the television series he is 'acting chief inspector'.

The entire Leanne Wray plot is treated in a completely different manner in the tv show than in the book, for possibly dramatic reasons. The character of (presumably) her father is greatly extended (and invented), and the pregnant 17 year old girl is a total figment of the scriptwriter's imagination, another invention which makes no difference whatsoever to the story but serves only to annoy me.

I don't know whether anyone would be tempted into reading the book after reading the dramatisation, but if they did, they would be left wondering whether they were reading the same story.

Why, why, WHY?