28 June 2008

Splashing out at Tesco

One of Tesco's great strengths is its understanding of price-targeting: the art of getting customers to reveal exactly how much they are prepared to pay for any goods. The genius lies in developing three lines of ostensibly the same products, aimed at three different categories of purchaser: Tesco own brand; Tesco Finest; and Tesco Value. Thus Tesco can cash in on both the people who are prepared to pay through the nose for finest* Tin Foil, as well as those who would only pay bare minimum for the same product in the Value range.

Previously I have questioned the validity of applying the finest* branding to products such as Tesco Broadband, given their inability to promise a higher-quality online experience than ordinary broadband. But today I saw an interesting application of the Value branding: Tesco Value bottled water.

Now correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that Tesco Value was aimed at people who wanted basic products. Surely bottled mineral water is the preserve of those fairly insensitive to the price of food. What next - Tesco Value fois gras?

At 17p a litre, Tesco Value Still Water does represent a more realistic cost for one of the most basic products of all, certainly when compared with the equivalent volume of, say, Evian. But if you turn on your tap around here you can apparently buy a cubic metre of clean, still drinking water for £1.20, according to Anglian Water's website. I don't even know how many litres you get in a cubic metre, but I'm willing to guess it is more than 8.

I'm quite tempted to bottle up some of my tap water and sell it outside Tesco for 10p a litre to this clearly burgeoning gentry who fancy "designer water" to accompany their turkey twizzlers. After all, at 17p each, I can't imagine Tesco is doing anything different.

27 June 2008

A tale of two Davids

Noting the candidate list at the upcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election, I have suddenly realised why the Labour Party is not fielding a candidate against the incumbent David Davis. It's one thing to finish behind the BNP, as the Labour Party did in this week's Henley by-election. But at Haltemprice-Howden, the government would face an even greater fear: the risk of finishing behind the Other David - David Icke.

With this in mind I thought I'd check out the website of our favourite conspiracy theorist for fresh news of his run for parliament. Disappointingly, there is little comment on Mr Icke's website about his latest assault upon our intelligence, though I noted with interest all his books are available to buy online - and web-based applications to join his organisation are similarly welcome.

Given the extraordinary nature of Mr Icke's claims (see previous Hofflimits entry here) of multiple conspiracies on an eye-popping scale, you would have thought he'd be rather suspicious of the World Wide Web: a global network of computers, controlled by large corporations and governments. But there is not the slightest whiff of talk of Lizard men, the "Illuminati" or international banking being linked to this all-encompassing net. Surely he is missing a trick here?

Or could it be he has already taken a stand against the Internet but his views are somehow being suppressed by an electronic information conspiracy from which even the turquoise son of God cannot escape? That David Icke has become part of the conspiracy? I'd like to see someone on the doorsteps of Haltemprice try that one out on him, when he comes knocking for their votes.

The price of everything and the value of nothing

You can't put a price on your health, or so the saying goes. But in his book The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford argues you can do exactly that. To put it simply, the information revealed by pricing is something that can just as easily be applied to how much you'd sell a kidney for as to how much you'd sell your house for.

But can you put a price on beliefs? For example, if I think that Rupert Murdoch is an egomanical monster whose obsessive need to control the news agenda is corrosive to democracy, how much does that view cost me? After years of self-flagellation - not buying a Murdoch newspaper or a Sky TV subscription - I have settled for the moral defeat of middle aged compromise. I am now a Sky subscriber for phone, TV and Broadband.

I can, of course, comfort myself with mealy-mouthed excuses: for every Murdoch paper I didn't buy I probably read a Harper-Collins book or watched a Fox Corporation movie or TV show, both of which line Murdoch's capacious pockets. I can say I am doing it for my family, providing the best value multi-media package on the market. But I suppose the most curious compensation is that I now know the exact price of my principles. £28 per month, apparently.

15 June 2008

update: moving (very slowly) in mysterious ways

At the start of the week, I mentioned my Jonah complex, after experiencing significant rail disruption while reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. By Thursday the power lines had been repaired and travels times were getting back to normal, and I continued to read Mr Hitchens' polemic as I waited for cancelled trains to take me home.

Thursday evening came, and my scheduled service left on time for the first time in a week, as I buried my head in my book, by now nearly at the end. Meanwhile, ahead of me a goods train was being derailed, bringing with it the usual effects with which I had become so familiar: replacement bus services, misinformation, confusion and open-ended delays.

While I accept the logic of Mr Hitchens' arguments, I think I'll be sure to finish the book before I next take the train to London.

With fiends like these, who needs enemies?

Much debate this week about the passage of the proposed legislation through the British parliament to enable the government to imprison people without trial for up to 42 days. Currently the police have a mere 28 days to charge people, and with much huffing and puffing, the government squeezed the bill through its second reading, like a camel through the eye of a needle.

In the agonised debates about the need to protect its citizens versus the rights of those citizens to remain unmolested, it's hard to pinpoint the precise point at which detention becomes unacceptable. No-one would deny the police some time to question arrestees before charging, but whether that is measured in hours or days, or even weeks can become Reductio ad absurdum: is 21 days acceptable but 22 a violation of habeus corpus?

Looking overseas for a steer on this debate, we can see the UK leads the way amongst western democracies, who mostly limit such detention to 7 days. Even in the War-On-Terror United States it is limited to just 2 days - on the mainland at least (military facilities in the Caribbean don't count). But I think the truth of how illiberal the UK has become is to be found in the exact opposite of such places.

Take Burma (please), or Myanmar as nobody insists on calling it. This week their military junta - generally acknowledged to be high in the Top Ten list of "people you wouldn't want running your country" - offered its latest explanation of Aung San Suu Kyi's indefinite house arrest. Her detention for the last 13 years was justified as being in line with modern anti-terrorist legislation passed by the likes of Britain. Surely you know the game is up when the Burmese government compliments you on your criminal justice system?

The fact that the UK subjects some of its citizens to indefinite house arrest, in the same way as Burma does, shouldn't fool one into making lazy comparisons, of course. After all, there are other regimes that allows such practices, so we are in good company: North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe.

10 June 2008

Keep the change

Now Barack Obama has won the Democratic Party nomination for President, there is much idle speculation about which "first" will be realised in November - first Black President or Oldest President. The USA seems keen to congratulate itself on its apparent lack of bigotry for picking a candidate for its highest office from an ethnic minority. But is this such a breakthrough? After all, white Americans would be fairly comfortable with the sight of a black man pleading for their support behind a sign with the word "change" on it, albeit usually at the side of the road rather than a political platform.

Never mind that black politicians have been winning elections for a generation in the US, this is deemed to be some sort of breakthrough moment. Obama is clearly an extraordinary man in many ways, but he also conforms to a certain template of Presidential candidate: overachieving, driven, ambitious and articulate, with a great background story with which to burnish the myth of the Presidency. A template whose main exception seems to be the present incumbent to the Office.

If it's not Obama, then someone else will break the ceiling before long. But how long until America is confident enough to vote for a candidate who claims no religious affiliation? I think they'll have elected a score of black presidents before that particular "first" ever happens.

Moving in mysterious ways

I'm reading a book by Christopher Hitchens called God is not great. Amongst other things, it is a critique of the instinctive tendency in humans to see providential signs in the world around us - either of God's approval or disdain, depending on whether an apple falls on your head or a grand piano.

While reading this book on the train yesterday returning to London, I chanced to look up to check how far we were from our destination. At this moment I found myself looking at a billboard on the side of a house adjacent to the railway line that simply read:

A little spooky, I thought. But if Jehovah is trying to speak to me, I'd have thought he'd be a little more up-to-date than using 48-sheet ambient media. In London I transferred stations to head home, and, as I read, things got a little more direct: the overhead electric cable powering our train snapped and wound its way around the pantograph, like a fishing line snaring an angry catfish.
After dragging down a mile and a half of cabling, we had to sit for two hours in our abandoned train before help arrived. As I clambered into the relief train that would take us on our way, I think I realised how Jonah must have felt. And if we had had to wait any longer, the rest of the exasperated passengers might have felt inclined to throw me to the fishes - this being a more reasonable response than expecting a normal service from National Express trains.