2019-07-07

Diplomatic leak - USA ambassador to the UK

Followuing the leak of messages from the UK ambassador to the USA Sir Kim Darroch, your humble correspondent is pleased to report a rare coup [I'm totally making this up] of message intercepts from the USA's ambassador to the UK.

Let me repeat for the benefit of intelligence agencies, this is totally made up. If it turns out to be mostly correct, that's not my problem.


From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: June 23 2016 Subject: Brexit OK, I totally didn't see that coming. Are USA diplomatic personnel strictly liable for debts to UK bookmakers? Asking for a friend.
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: July 10 2016 Subject: UK Conservative party leadership contest Met with one of the Conservative leadership contenders, one Treesa May. Polite, inoffensive, educated, terrible poker player. No chance she'll win unless the Conservative party members have lost their senses. Mind, they picked D Cameron previously, so who knows...
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: July 12 2016 Subject: Welcome to the new UK Prime Minister Tell Barack to brush up a bit on the rules of poker, but he can take the UK to the cleaners whenever he wants.
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: November 7 2016 Subject: Future diplomatic assignments Everything's looking good from my end. Theresa is available for the ritual congrats call whenever HRC wants. Thinking about a public leak of the convo - female Pres to female PM, looks good to the voters both side. Brooke's getting a bit tired of London and worried about the kids' accents. I hear rumors that Janie H has had enough of Paris - any chance we could swap? Just a thought.
From: UKAMB Matthew W. Barzun Date: November 9 2016 Subject: Fuck Fuck fuck fuckity fuck. Fuck. Any chance of a judicial review? How's HRC taking it?
From: DCM Lewis Lukens Date: January 18 2017 Subject: Testing Is this thing on? Any suggestions on format of messaging that DJT likes to hear? Current assessment on the ground is that Theresa will spring an election on the country in the next few months - and she'll cruise to victory, because the Opposition Leader is a less hygienic and more socialist version of B Sanders. Going to put a few $$ on a 50+ seat win at William Hill, anyone who wants in on the action pls send money in the next diplomatic bag.
From: DCM Lewis Lukens Date: June 9 2017 Subject: Predicting the future is hard I don't have access to replies to UKAMB Barzun, what was the advice re his query on UK bookmaker liability?
From: UMKAMB Robert Wood Johnson Date: August 22 2017 Subject: UK catch-up Anyone who says that they know what's happening with Brexit is a liar. This is the shit-show of all shit-shows. Theresa managed to lose her majority to a guy who would be pushed to win a minor role in Seattle politics. Say hi to Melania!
From: UMKAMB Robert Wood Johnson Date: Jan 15 2019 Subject: Clean-up Had a friendly poker game with Theresa May (alleged national leader), Olly Robbins (head of Brexit negotiations), and Philip Hammond (does something with the UK Treasury, I hear). Cleaned up nicely. . Hearing rumors about a leadership challenge if things go screwy before the March deadline. Frankly, this lot couldn't score in a brothel if they had $100 bills jammed in their orifices, so who knows what they'll do.
From: Woody Johnson Date: May 24 2019 Subject: Thank fuck for that Theresa has finally thrown in the towel. Only about three Goddamn years overdue but she was never a quick learner. I had $1000 on Boris J as Brexit PM back in 2016, and intend to roll this over to 2019. Anyone else wants a piece of the action, you know the drill - cash up front. Suzanne and kids are enjoying the increased buying power of the $. Tell DJT that now is a great time to visit, if he can stand the weather....

2019-05-18

Darn that undependable "climate change"

Poor Cody Petterson is despondent:

As a child, he had happily played and hiked among these statuesque conifers, which provide shelter to black bears and black-tailed deer. By the age of 37, he wanted to do his bit to conserve and repair the land.
But in the six years since he began, California has experienced severe drought, which scientists link to global warming, and 650 of Cody's 750 seedlings died.
Gosh, that's terrible. What's happening?
In California, the effects of climate change are ubiquitous - recent years have produced record-breaking temperatures, earlier springs and less reliable rainfall.

That would indeed be worrying, what does the per-location rainfall data say? Well, although 2018 was 50% to 70% of "normal" level, it seems that 2019 has already been up to 20% above normal - and there's more unseasonably late rain to come this week. Even worse, the data shows that 2018 was particularly dry in SoCal (25% of normal), and yet is still significantly above normal this year.

So the fact that Cody (or the article's author Georgina Rannard) makes the inference that "climate change" is causing irreversible changes to the California climate seems to be less than conclusively proven by the available data.

Incidentally [prediction] this year is going to be a really bad year for fires in California. We've had a wet, long winter to allow grass to grow and thrive. We're having a second, late, belt of rain that will feed the undergrowth. Fire season is going to start late, but when it starts there's going to be a staggeringly high amount of tinder and fuel for the fires.

  • Is this due to a change in weather? Sure! Very different from the past few years.
  • Is it due to "climate change"? Sure! The climate is always changing.
  • Is it due to man-made contributions? Definitely, but not the way you might think:
    It’s counterintuitive, but the United States’ history of suppressing wildfires has actually made present-day wildfires worse.
    “For the last century we fought fire, and we did pretty well at it across all of the Western United States,” Dr. Williams said. “And every time we fought a fire successfully, that means that a bunch of stuff that would have burned didn’t burn. And so over the last hundred years we’ve had an accumulation of plants in a lot of areas.
    (New York Times, by the way)

What's more, California has been very "successful" at preventing controlled burns, and preventing people from cutting down trees and brush near their houses to make their areas defensible against fire, which has resulted in a huge source of fire fuel right next to where people live. Great job, guys.

I assume the environmental lawyers all live in San Francisco and Sacramento, which are 95% concrete and immune to the consequences of their actions...

2019-04-27

CASSH 2018: feeling the squeeze

It's that time of year again, where "charities" are forced to release their annual accounts, and semi-numerate baboons such as your humble correspondent paw through the numbers to try to uncover a story. Today's tale is about "Consensus" Action on Salt, Sugar and Health (CASSH).

I have perused the CASSH 2018 accounts and noted in passing that no-one actually checks them. They're still referring to Blood Pressure (UK) as charity number 1059844 (page 2) - this is actually Wetherby Sports Association, they actually meant 1058944. I'm not surprised that the Charity Commission doesn't apply this level of rigorous scrutiny, but it's an interesting data point.

Anyhoo, the CASSH accounts are 50 pages long, and at least 30 pages is tedious self-promo on their salt- and sugar-related activities. News flash, people - nobody cares. The Charity Commission is skipping right to the end to check out the numbers, as did I.

And oh, what numbers. Props to CASSH for cutting their coat according to their cloth, they've basically halved spending on their main "awareness" activities year-on-year; £141K vs £251K. Nevertheless, their reserves dropped from £564K to £483K - down 15% in one year. Their accounts note:

A delay in payment of a large expected donation this Financial Year, plus the return to work of two employees who had been on maternity leave (with reduced pay), accounts for a deficit in income and a surplus expenditure, prompting action by Trustees. The Trustees reviewed the financial position and agreed to release funds from the reserves to cover all core salary costs until such time as the funding gap was filled, expected March 2019.
Hmm. And so we'll see a corresponding rebound in next year's accounts? Colour me sceptical.

Even with a sudden donation increase from £4K to £56K, and the aforementioned throttling of expenditure, the charity is still spending way more than it receives. Unless they can latch on to the teat of a government entity, they're going to run out of money in a few years. It turns out, shockingly, that most people don't really care about sugar and salt consumption, at least not to the point of spending their own money to reduce that consumption in others. Revealed preferences, darlings!

Good luck for 2019, CASSH. Looks like you'll need it.

2019-04-26

Marcela Trust 2018: not much charity, property speculation not working out

Dear reader, if you are still perusing my analyses of the accounts of the Marcela Trust (spending Octav Botnar's squirreled-away cash on trustee salaries and property speculation for a good number of years) then I can only admire your fortitude as I offer up this analytical tidbit based on their 2018 accounts.

Background for the casual observer: the Marcela Trust is sitting on about £80 million of money from OMC Investments Limited, founded in 1971, which seems to be from the former Nissan UK. Although a registered charity, they seem to be a bit tight with their charitable spending. In 2017, they spent £12K on charitable donations and £300K on trustee remuneration. Obviously this was a one-off, and we can expect 2018 charitable spending to resume at appropriate levels.

You know what's coming, don't you?

The Marcela Trust spent even less on charitable activities in 2018 compared to 2017: £11.5K instead of £12.2K. In practice, that's the same £7.5K grant plus a bit less auditor fees. Their spending on trustees was still around £300K, with a steady £225K going Mrs Dawn Pamela Rose (presumed family motto: "payment by results is for suckers!").

Again, this level of payment might be justified if the trustees' shrewd investment strategies in commercial property were paying off. Sadly, their fixed assets (mostly commercial property) took a hit of nearly £8M in the past year - that's nearly 10% of their total funds wiped out in one year. And this in a 10 year property bull market. Great job, guys. What happens when the next recession hits?

I repeat my observation from last year: this does not look like a charity. If I were the Charity Commission, I'd be asking some very pointed questions about the past few years' spending.

2019-04-22

Taking advice from Greta Thunberg

Suppose we were looking to build a bridge, say across Avon Gorge, to give us substantially more traffic capacity than the existing Clifton Suspension Bridge has. (The Dear Reader may insert their favourite joke about needing much more capacity for traffic leaving Bristol than for entering it).

It wouldn't be surprising that a lot of people would have strong opinions on what kind of bridge we should build. Imagine, however, that a 16 year old high school student was championing a bridge structure that comprised a sequence of road segments chained together and suspended from helium balloons. Imagine that such a proposal was lauded by at least 30% of the people involved as bold, innovative, and a wonderful example of youthful thinking, despite the fact that a first year engineering student could shoot the proposal as full as holes as a particularly perforated Swiss cheese.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves with young Greta Thunberg.

Young Greta is clearly sincere , and cares deeply about the environment. Unfortunately, "sincerity" is as useful a factor in planning a 21st century industrial strategy as it is in building a bridge. If a bridge builder tells me that she "sincerely" believes it will support the expected peak weight of traffic in peak adverse conditions, and be durable for a lifetime of 50+ years, I will smile and nod; if anyone I care about will be traversing the bridge, I will then ask pointed questions about stress calculations, FEMs analysis, safety engineering analysis, and all the inconvenient hard science that lets us calculate at least a ballpark probability of the bridge suddenly failing and casting a few hundred people into the abyss. Nearly anyone can be sincere. To be correct requires actual maths, materials knowledge, ability to program R / Matlab / other mathematical tool of choice and produce a verifiable assertion, given generally accepted axioms, that the bridge will meet specs.

Somehow, I don't see this level of mathematical / physical / engineering rigour coming from young Ms Thunberg. Or her singer/actor parents, for that matter.

The correct response to Greta Thunberg and her parasitic (in every sense of the word) hangers-on is as follows:

  • Give us a practical - by which we mean can-be-implemented-with-existing-technologies - 20 year plan for reducing carbon emissions world-wide by X%.
  • Cover the top 10 current CO2 polluters; either assume they continue on current trend, or argue why they will change.
  • You cannot assume any existing technology improves by more than 4% per year for cost/efficiency.
  • Include the expected economic impact on the top 10 world economies.
Greta would (quite rightly) say: "I'm 16 years old, how could you possibly expect me to answer this?"

Greta käraste, if you can't be expected to answer the hard questions, why should we listen to your easy answers?

2019-02-07

Symbolic of California's struggle against reality - car insurance

Dear readers, it has been a busy couple of months, but I thought I'd check in after reading a barnstormer of a story from CALmatters. First, a little bit of background.

In October 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Senate Bill SB 179, which created a new gender "nonbinary" designation for all forms of state ID - including, of course, driving licenses. This then gave drivers the option of listing their gender as nonbinary. Regular readers of the antics of the Californian government will be forgiven for not falling off their chairs at the realization that this has had some unexpected consequences.

It seems that as a follow-on, California's outgoing Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones issued a regulation last month prohibiting the use of gender in automobile insurance rating. One can speculate why he did this, but (judging from the self-centeredness of transgender people I've met around here) if I were a car insurance company, I'd be giving a hefty premium bump to anyone checking that box ; perhaps this was Mr. Jones' attempt to get out in front of that problem. Ten out of ten for forward thinking, minus several thousand for economic illiteracy - of which, more later.

The proximate effect: California's Department of Insurance has decreed that auto insurance companies can no longer grant breaks in insurance rates to teen drivers who are female, or charge young men more. So if you're a woman - in particular a young woman - in California looking to insure a car, you can expect your new rate to take a sharp move skywards:

[California auto insurers' rep] Frazier said the gender of teen drivers can result in an additional cost for boys or discount for girls of about 6 percent on their premiums.
Honestly, that seems low-ball to me:
The association also cited a 2016 Insurance Institute report saying: "Men typically drive more miles than women and more often engage in risky driving practices, including not using safety belts, driving while impaired by alcohol, and speeding."
Yep, I'd agree with all of that, especially for late teens/early twenties. Given that, a 6% male-over-female premium seems really low. I'd expect it to be more like 25%. We'll know for sure when insurance renewal rolls around and California girls start yelling on Twitter.

The real prize for willful ignorance or brazen lies, however, must go to the new Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara:

Lara supports that policy, saying in a statement: “Gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation are beyond your control, and it is not a fair or even an effective way to predict risk.
That's right, Ricky. Any insurance company could charge boys the same as girls with no additional risk, and quickly get every single boy in the country insuring their car with them, but they don't do so because they... like leaving huge sums of money on the table? Yes, that must be it.
Commissioner Ricardo Lara made history in 2018 by becoming the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in California’s history. Commissioner Lara previously served in the California Legislature, representing Assembly District 50 from 2010 to 2012 and Senate District 33 from 2012 to 2018. Commissioner Lara earned a BA in Journalism and Spanish with a minor in Chicano Studies from San Diego State University.
I guess he skipped all the finite math classes in high school. Or worse, he know's he's talking bollocks but simply doesn't care because no-one will call him on it.

Consider yourself called on it, Ricardo.

It's possible, however, that it won't actually work out in practice as Ricky intends. We saw how this worked out in Europe after a European Court of Justice ruling. [note: link from that notorious right-of-center rag The Guardian]:

But what has happened since the rules came into force? Instead of the gap between men’s and women’s premiums narrowing, as expected, it has actually widened. In 2012, men on average paid £27 more for a car insurance policy than a woman, but rather remarkably they now they pay £101 more – nearly a four-fold increase.
...
What appears to be at work is that car insurance companies set a price very much according to all the other data they can find on you – without actually asking your gender. So the quote you get back reflects the risks attached to your occupation, how much you drive, the sort of car you drive and whether you have made any modifications to the car.

Perhaps this is fine with Ricky - as long as there is the appearance of fairness, and he's protecting his favored class of people from reality, this is all Working As Intended.

2018-12-08

Life of an actuary: more exciting than you might believe

When I was in university and hanging around the mathematicians - those students who dedicated their life to math(s), and I use "life" in the loosest sense possible - the standard joke was that the really successful ones would get involved in professional gambling[1], most of them would be accountants, and the ones who couldn't handle the excitement of accountancy[2] would become actuaries.

At least two of the three were true. Approximately the majority of the mathematicians I knew ended up in accountancy or related consultancy, and the actuaries were definitely around the low end of the social scale in the subject. Given the starting point of a mathematics degree, that's a scale needing very fine calibration. Anyone who chose optional courses in computer science ended up working for Big Tech and making out like a bandit.

Today I stumbled across a site Be An Actuary, which is (as far as I can tell) not a spoof site. It contains invaluable advice and guidance on what to do if you feel that actuarialism[3] is your calling, and a critical piece of information is what a day in the life of an actuary is like.

Before reading these quotes, you may wish to equip yourself with a spoon[4].

So far today, I've researched the applicable accounting rules and written a report for a client who's acquiring a small life insurance company.
Be still my beating heart.
I am constantly asking myself "Does this make sense?".
I'm assuming that "this" doesn't apply to "my terrible career choice". But it should.
In a midsize company like mine, there is also opportunity to price a new product, which takes creativity, or respond to an insurance department inquiry, which requires communication skills and tact.
Or, in despair at my life, throw myself through a 10th floor window, which requires a good run-up.
I currently manage three reserving analysts and we spend most of our time doing reserve analyses and projects like catastrophe modeling, loss modeling for some of our low frequency/high severity lines, and supporting our Corporate Actuary as he writes Actuarial Opinions and Reports.
You should spend some time on serious introspection on how your life got to be this way.[5]

If you still have more than one eye remaining to view the remainder of this blog post, you're a more resilient person than me.

[1] Specifically, running the numbers games in the casinos rather than playing them.
[2] Yes, that's irony.
[3] Probably not a word, at least I hope not.
[4] Because it's DULL, you twit. It'll hurt more.
[5] Probably, you have Korean/Indian/Chinese parents and you paid more attention to their ambitions than your desires.

2018-11-02

Unionism in Silicon Valley - called it

Back in January I made the following prediction:

What do I think? Twitter, Facebook and Google offices in the USA are going to be hit with unionization efforts in the next 12 months, initially as a trial in the most favorable locations but if they succeed then this will be ramped up quickly nationwide. This will be framed as a push to align the companies to approved socially just policies - which their boards mostly favor already - but will be used to leapfrog the activist employees into union-endorsed and -funded positions of influence.

Sure enough, a bunch of Google staff walked out of work today, nominally to protest at ex-Android head Andy Rubin getting a cool $90M in severance after being accused of dubious behaviour with someone in a hotel room, which he denies:

Rubin said in a two-part tweet: “The New York Times story contains numerous inaccuracies about my employment at Google and wild exaggerations about my compensation. Specifically, I never coerced a woman to have sex in a hotel room. These false allegations are part of a smear campaign to disparage me during a divorce and custody battle. Also, I am deeply troubled that anonymous Google executives are commenting about my personnel file and misrepresenting the facts.”
For the record, Rubin sounds a bit sleazy even if you apply a high degree of scepticism to the exact circumstances of the event.

Let's look at the "official" walkout Twitter account, and wonder who's actually driving this organisation:

For posterity, the "demands" are:
  1. An end to Forced Arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination for all current and future employees.
  2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity.
  3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
  4. A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.
  5. Elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors. Appoint an Employee Rep to the Board.
Points 1-4 seem pretty reasonable - but what does point 5 have to do with the rest of the list? And who would this "Employee Rep" be - a unionisation activist, perchance? $10 says I'm right. This is a classic tactic: take a reasonable area of complaint and use it as a Trojan Horse to sneak in the early stages of unionisation to the company.

Google allegedly employs very smart people. If only they exercised their critical faculties half as well as their intellects, they might be asking uncomfortable questions of the protest organisers about where point 5 came from and who the organisers have in mind to take on "employee rep" duties. I guarantee you that it's not Rob Pike or Jeff Dean.

2018-10-21

CASH / CASSH 2017 and the importance of attracting funding

Both my regular readers will recall my personal crusade to investigate the Marcela Trust and why UK "charities" such as "Consensus Action Salt for Health" (CASH) and "Action on Sugar" (different branch of same charity) are being funded to stop people eating bacon.

As part of this ongoing investigation I downloaded CASH accounts for 2016-2017 from the UK Charity Commission website. Saved a copy as well for future reference. The TL;DR:

  • Rebranded to Consensus Action on Salt, Sugar and Health (mission-merged title, happened some time after April 2016);
  • Notes that they're associated with charity Blood Pressure UK featuring long-time CASSH reps Katharine Jenner and Prof. Graham MacGregor (and they accidentally mis-cite the charity number, it's 1058944 not 1059844);
  • Blood Pressure UK burned through 30% of their funds in year-end 2017 (£210K to £140K) so it's anyone's guess how long this venture will last without a cash infusion;
  • CASSH brought in £50K in 2017 - down from £215K in 2016 - and spent £250K in 2017 - up from £153K in 2016. So they're down from just over £750K in funds to a bit over £560K. This doesn't seem very sustainable long-term
  • Basically, no-one is giving CASSH any significant amount of money. Tragic, really. I'd imagine that the general choke-off in government funds to "charities" is starting to bite.
  • About half their expenditure is in food salt/sugar surveys; seems that those surveys aren't translating into funding for action. No-one cares about what they find.
  • In summary, CASSH is going to run out of cash in the next 3-5 years unless they can find a charity or government agency with reasonably deep pockets to fund their surveys

Great quote from their annual report:

Andrea Martinez-Inchausti told attendees [of the CASH reception at the House of Commons, sponsored by Sir David Amess MP] that BRC members, such as Tesco and Waitrose, are committed to salt reduction but following initial reductions, further reductions in salt are posing a technical challenge.
Let me guess: no-one wants to eat food with near-zero salt?

In fairness, I'd note that a key difference between CASSH and the Marcela Trust is that the latter sends large chunks of its finances to a few directors in remuneration, whereby CASSH at least has the decency to avoid hosing money at its trustees. (I'm curious about where in detail the £120K of survey cash goes, but have no reason to believe it ends up in CASSH trouser pockets).

Ah, CASSH. It seems that trying to reduce sugar and salt consumption in the UK, or indeed world-wide, is very much a minority interest and not one than people are prepared to back with significant quantities of their own money. I'm sure people talk a good game, but their revealed preferences in funding show that they don't actually care. Sorry guys!

2018-10-06

Post Kavanaugh confirmation the Left loses its fecal matter

An hour or after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as the replacement for Associate Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court I decided to trawl Liberal Twitter for the reaction. I was not disappointed.

Yes, I'd imagine it did. I wonder why history seems to be repeating itself?

Yes. They've given Republicans a significant boost in advance of the November mid-terms, where Democrats were previously indicated as performing well. Well done survivors! Bet you're pleased.

The Democratic party?

Also, the republic's legislative branch function of selecting the members of the judiciary.

It says "men can be just as blind to facts and the principles of justice as women. Yay equality!" Also "what's with the red suit, Reverend, are you trying to attract attention to yourself rather than your celestial Boss?"

Should we bring Bill Clinton's hands into the discussion then? How about (Heaven forfend) Joe Biden's?

I'm fine with making these cheap shots. The Democratic senators and associated mob who tried to lynch Brett Kavanaugh made this confirmation expensive enough for him and his family - and for Christine Ford, let us not forget. Let's have some symmetry.