Saturday, 13 December 2014

An Introduction to Bitcoins: the £3m Pizza.



Back in 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz convinced someone to accept 10,000 units of a currency he had just mined with his computer to buy pizza for him, from Papa Johns.

 On an online forum, Hanyecz asked someone to order two large pizzas, worth $25 dollars (£15) for him in exchange for 10,000 Bitcoins- a virtual currency, young and relatively unheard of at the time.

Little did the anonymous volunteer who responded to him know that soon, he would be very well paid for this job; as of the 1st of April 2014, 10,000 Bitcoins are worth £2,955,271.52.

What is Bitcoin, and why is it so popular?
Bitcoins are a virtual, online-only currency that is far different from the Pound, or the Dollar that we are used to. Unlike conventional currencies, Bitcoins are un-centralised. They dont need a bank, or central authority to control any aspects of it- and they are fully global, not tied to any specific country.

This is a particularly attractive aspect of Bitcoin- it removes the need of a third party (such as a credit card company) in a transaction- making it quicker, more private and cheaper. For example, to transfer pounds over to someone in China from Britain you'd have to pay high transaction rates, extra money that would go to the company youre using for the transaction. Bitcoin allows you to transfer this money straight to the receiver, without any extra fees or parties involved.

Contrary to regular currencies extra Bitcoins cannot be produced- there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins; 12 million of which already exist.

Rising demand has seen Bitcoin prices skyrocket recently- at the time of Hanyeczs pizza purchase 1 Bitcoin was worth 1 two-hundredth of a pound- currently 1 Bitcoin is worth almost £300.

Sounds great! How can I get these Bitcoins?
Bitcoins are produced through a process of mining- you get your computer to solve a series complex maths puzzles via a program, and after long enough, you receive a quantity of Bitcoins. But its takes a long time- on average itd take over 100 days to mine a single Bitcoin.


Where does Bitcoin get its value?
Well, no one knows exactly, but its generally accepted that Bitcoin gets its worth from trust- similar to conventional money, but instead of relying on gold it relies on complex mathematical properties.
Essentially, people who accept Bitcoin value it as something someone else will accept for another good- just like how youll take a fiver from your dad, because you know the local Tesco will accept it for what you want to buy.

So what can I get with Bitcoins?
Anything, provided the vendor accepts Bitcoins; you can hire a private jet, order a takeaway, and a more notorious use has been in the drug trade.


Its difficult to tell whether Bitcoins are just part of a huge crypto-currency bubble, along with other equivalents such as the short-lived Coinye West and Dogecoin- and what will happen when the 21m Bitcoin limit is reached? Only time will tell.
Mohammad Lone Editor

Sunday, 23 November 2014

SLOW DOWN: How Our Impatience Is Ruining Us.



One of the most significant features engrained into almost every aspect of our modern society is undoubtedly our desire for speed. Modern lifestyle is at such a rapid pace that often we forget to see it that way- we all get fast food from McDonalds, spend extra to get extra fast One-Day delivery on our Amazon order, and we all want a fast Italian car. More than ever, speed really is of the essence in today's world, and it's unsurprising that this is the case.

A primary reason for this impatience is our lack of leisure time. One of capitalism's great claims is the reduced workload it puts on every individual who partakes in it, but a fascinating paper by Juliet B. Schor of MIT suggests that we, as an industrial capitalist workforce, actually have less leisure time than most of our medieval ancestors- who, according to former Oxford don James E. Thorold Rogers, rarely had a work day of more than 8 hours. Altogether, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up around 1 third of the year- something we today can only dream of.
Work dominates the lives of so many modern citizens- economic pressures are primarily the root of this. Americans work more than anybody else- also taking less leave, working longer days and retiring later than citizens of any other country in the world- even often taking up multiple jobs to help make ends meet. Perhaps this is an interesting statement for the the world's bastion of capitalism to put across.

Anyway, people have less leisure time in today's world and undoubtedly this is a reason for why we like to 'live life in the fast lane'- time is precious, and everyone wants to fit everything in to what time we have outside of work, be it the weekends or just a single lunch break.

This impatience has helped us in many ways- in particular with regards to the overall productivity of society. Over the past few decades economic productivity has drastically increased, one of the reasons for the rapid socio-economic modernisation that the world has seen in past decades. The extra productivity has gone into developing and producing revolutionary technology like computers, goods like clothes and food, allowing the supply to be there for more people around the world to be able to purchase such items, and thus enjoy an improved standard of living (though the effect of some consumer goods on standard of living is debatable). Capitalism may not be pretty, but ideas of Adam Smith's such as division of labour have certainly streamlined the economies of the world, in many cases leading to better lives for ordinary people.

But on the other hand, the damages of this rapid, impatient lifestyle are evident throughout our society.
Our impatience has been damaging to our health- fast food has unfortunately become the staple of the workers' diet, due to its sheer convenience. People don't want to spend their whole valuable lunch break sitting down at a table any more- McDonalds, Burger King and co. offer a far more convenient, grab and go system that lets you enter a store, place an order, grab your food and be out of there within 5 minutes. The drive-thru system means you don't even have to enter the store. Minimum fuss, minimum time lost, but pretty much maximum damage done to your health- the ingredients these companies use to provide such a quick and addictive experience for their customers are dangerous both in the short and long term for the health. Meanwhile, 'healthy' food, notorious for its supposedly  painful, long preparation time, goes ignored by many (though thankfully this trend has been reversing in recent years due to an increase in health-consciousness). Nevertheless, much of the damage has been done in the obesity rates of today's world, and is continuing to be done in how fast food remains among the world's most popular choices of food.
Further health concerns have grown along with the rise in popularity of cars in recent decades. Pretty much everyone has a car, and people who use an alternative form of transport in their daily commute are probably in a very small minority. Cars allow us to stay at home in the mornings longer, and get home sooner, without breaking a sweat- just like fast food, they are quick and easy, and our impatience and lack of time makes us particularly weak in fighting their attraction.

By no means is this to say that neither cars nor fast food have benefited society at all- the positive effects cars have had in bringing closer the world and in terms of convenience is undeniable, and fast food's affordability and convenience similarly cannot be ignored- but, the indulgent society that we can often be, when these have been used to the extremes they have proven to be catastrophic- just as an example, obesity has grown to the extent that it currently costs the world $2 trillion to deal with. And this is just the tip of the iceberg- further health problems such as stress, and social problems such as decreasing family interaction can also be attributed to the fast and busy lifestyle we live.

And our impatience does have direct economic implications on our lives. Combined with our materialist tendencies it has driven us to make many financially unwise decisions, on a daily basis. Just a small example one can witness on a daily basis at any newsagents is the lottery. In Britain, over 32 million people play the lottery every week, buying on average three tickets at a time. These people, driven by the prospect of becoming rich quick and easily, as a result overlook the fact that the chances of winning are just one in 14 million. The lottery is a small but recurrent drain on income- if those who bought lottery tickets maybe decided to invest the money spent on tickets in a savings fund they are far more likely to be better off economically.

The most significant example however comes in the shape of the borrowing phenomenon. Gone are the days of saving for many people- a 2012 survey found that 28% of Americans had no savings whatsoever, up from 24% the previous year and 49% had less than what would be necessary to cover three months of expenses, up from 46%. A significant reason for this lies in the increasing cost of living and the great stagnation of wages in America (see Seven Shocking Facts About Economic Inequality in the USA)- but considering that overall consumer spending actually increased in this period (see graph), the possibility that people are being less prudent with their finances is strong.

How is borrowing, and a lack of financial linked to our impatience? The link is clear- we no longer want to save up money for investments like a car or a house- we prefer to get them immediately, and credit allows us to do just this- transferring what is usually a greater cost to our future selves. It is pretty clear that paying for a car with cash is the best option- one significant reason being that the car itself is cheaper, with no need for extra interest payments to be made. But we don't like waiting, so we take the option of finance- spreading the (greater) cost of the car over multiple years, but gaining access to it now- you can buy a car worth £40k for example, even if you don't have £10k in your bank account. And there's nothing to stand in the way of our desire to do this- companies and banks are continuously offering seemingly attractive finance deals, making access to credit incredibly loose- affecting more significantly the housing market, where access to credit inflated the deadly housing bubble of the noughties- and we know where that led us. People borrowed more than they could afford to repay, and as a result when this was realised the bubble popped- creating one of the biggest global economic messes in the modern era.

The process of borrowing can lead to disastrous consequences- it can entail addiction, spiralling debt and subsequent homelessness. And the root of it, more often than not, is our desire to get that new car today- to get that new house as soon as possible, it is our impatience that leads us towards borrowing and putting our future at risk rather than being prudent and saving.

One cannot say that our own deficiencies can be easily resolved- as one could argue desire for speed is part of human nature- and nevertheless, the promotion of quick and easy credit by various financial institutions certainly has played a role also in our development of addiction to debt. Change will only come in the long term.

Old habits die hard, and the habit of borrowing, taking short term gains for long term losses is one that will certainly not go down without a fight.
Mohammad Lone Editor

Friday, 14 November 2014

An Introduction To The Russian Billionaire Oligarchy


You probably will have heard of the phrase 'oligarch'- a term most commonly associated with the wealthy business elite of Russian society- the natural resource and media men primarily. This group of people are widely known not just for their massive wealth (the combined fortune of the 131 oligarchs almost $450bn), but also often for their political power- amassing such a wealth has meant that Russian oligarchs have played a role in not just Russian politics but also that of other countries- recently Britain's ruling Conservative Party has come under the spotlight for facilitating this

And the fascinating thing is that while the group itself is relatively well known, receiving much media spotlight, most people know little about the individuals within- even those most well-known, such as Roman Abramovich of Chelsea Football Club or Arsenal Football Club's Alisher Usmanov, remain much of a mystery to even football's biggest followers. Russian oligarchs, while being wealthy, certainly contrast to their Western counterparts- tending more to live reclusive, closed personal lives. 

So who are these Russian oligarchs- and why are they so rich?

The story of the Russian oligarchy begins in the latter years of the Soviet Union. For the majority of the Soviet period, the rulers pursued protectionist economic policies- policies that sought to boost domestic trade by taxing highly, or even outlawing, certain imports. It's a common practice for many nations, developing and developed- for example, Obama placed a 35% tariff on Chinese tyres entering the USA in 2009. The rationale behind such protectionist policy is to discourage purchasing of products from foreign businesses, but facilitate more trade with local, domestic ones.


The AGAT-4, Soviet Russia's answer to Apple.
Anyway, these protectionist policies in Russia, especially towards the end of the century, meant that the Russian people were missing out on many of the western developments, particularly with regards to technology. Cars, for example- as Toyota, Fiat, Volkswagen and the like entered the global market from the 50s onwards, they were simply either unaffordable for the Russian public due to high tariffs, or commonly banned altogether from being imported. The Soviet government, seeking the development of Russian industries, responded by making their own competing car- the wonderful Lada Riva; perhaps an example of how state protectionism does not always produce the best results.

Protectionism affected not just cars but other everyday consumer products- computers, for example. The state's attempt to create a computer system to rival Apple's II, the AGAT computer was almost seventeen times as expensive as Steve Jobs' original computer that it was essentially a clone of. And it wasn't a very good clone either- a reviewer in BYTE magazine in 1984 stated that "even if they gave it away for free, it wouldn't stand a chance". 
So a few people saw solutions to this- such as Mikhail Khordovsky, who in 2003 was Russia's wealthiest man- among his first few business ventures was in the black market, where he bought western computers and resold them for a huge profit back home.

Protectionist policy therefore almost itself triggered the beginnings of these oligarchs, who were in fact largely self-made individuals, with no significant backing from family members as is sometimes the case with businessmen. Roman Abramovich, for example, was in his early years a soldier, and went on to become a mechanic. His first business moves were selling imported rubber ducks and dolls.

Such 'black market' activity was only helped by Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of Perestroika (translated restructuring)- this, among other things, sought to put down barriers to international trade, giving already established traders such as Khordovsky and Abramovich a better platform upon which they could do business, with less concealment.


Boris Yeltsin took Gorbachev's Perestroika policy further
transforming Russia into a capitalist economy.
But without doubt the biggest boost to the oligarchy, verily the match that lit its fire, was the fall of the USSR and the subsequent entrance of Boris Yeltsin into power- now as elected President of Russia. Seeking to overwrite the past seven decades of Communism, Yeltsin pushed for dramatic capitalist movement to be made in the Russian economy. The most significant change he made with regards to the oligarchs came in the mass privatisation of key Russian industries.

The industries in Russia dominated by the oligarchs of today were, during the time of the Communist regime, kept extremely close to the state. As we've already seen, the consumer goods industry was largely under state monopoly, but the biggest profits for the USSR were to come from the natural resource industry. Coal, oil, gold and numerous other valuable commodities were abundant throughout Russia and its associated countries- and the state wished to keep them under their control for numerous reasons, but primarily to a) keep hold of revenue to boost the economy and b) prevent any private party from becoming so wealthy and thus powerful through resources and perhaps challenging the rule of the authorities. 

Yeltsin's rapid privatisation (known informally as Catastroika), the auctioning off of key national industries, did the exact opposite of this. Russian state revenues dropped as some key industries were sold to private hands at prices that were too low (remind you of the Royal Mail?) and as a result those certain 'private hands', certain individuals who had a steady footing in Russian business, became extraordinarily wealthy.

And who exactly these individuals were was determined largely by not just their status in Russia as businessmen, but also their relationship to the authorities. According to The Guardian, "by 1996, at the age of 30, Roman Abramovich had become so rich and politically well-connected that he had become close to President Boris Yeltsin, and had moved into an apartment in the Kremlin at the invitation of the Yeltsin family."- this relationship was one that indeed did play a significant role in Abramovich's subsequent acquisition of most of Sibneft (one of Russia's largest oil producers) for just $100m (the entire company being worth $2.7bn)- one of the biggest sources of profit for him. From this point on, Abramovich's career only went up- and many other oligarchs began their billion-dollar ventures in a similar manner. 

So to conclude- the Russian oligarchy was the controversial product of Russia's rapid shift from Communism to deep Capitalism under Boris Yeltsin- from a totally nationalised economy to a largely privatised one. Vladimir Putin later went on to re-nationalise certain natural resource industries, but the spark that the initial rapid privatisation provided for these individuals is undoubtable- and it has created a generation of Russian business elite who are spreading out their wings internationally- one Russian billionaire purchasing Britain's most expensive home is just a part of it.

It may seem such a phenomenon is exclusive to Russia, but in fact this type of instance can be seen in parts throughout the world- the Middle East, for example. Unlike in Russia, the natural resource industries were almost from the beginning privately owned- but similarly a select group of business individuals have benefited hugely from exploitation of resources available to them, notably oil.


Recommended Reads:
Computing in the USSR http://www.lituanus.org/1980_4/80_4_09.htm

Inside the Hidden World of Roman's Empire http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/dec/24/sport.football

The Russian Oligarchs of the 1990s www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/oligarchs.htm

Why are rich Russians so obsessed with buying up London property? http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/may/09/rich-russians-buying-london-property-real-estate
Mohammad Lone Editor

Sunday, 2 November 2014

What's Nigel Farage's Beef with the European Union?


One of Britain's biggest political victors of 2014 have certainly been UKIP. Farage's men have risen from sharing the BNP's status as the nation's political laughing stock, to... well, still laughing stock (as any casual viewer of BBC's Mock The Week will certainly have observed), but a party that is now genuinely feared by the 'Big Three'- Cameron's Conservatives, Milliband's Labour and Clegg's Liberal Democrats. It's difficult to believe, but a recent Observer/Opinium poll suggested that presented with a genuine chance of a UKIP victory in their constituency, 31% of British voters would vote UKIP.
Their spectacular rise in popularity has been no accident- if Farage was a surfer, he'd be a darn talented one. He has ridden the massive waves of Euroscepticism, Immigrascepticism, Welfarescepticism, many of the scepticisms you could think about that have grown in the frustrated hearts of many voters not just on the right, but much of the centre also. Oh, and perhaps we have the BBC to thank as well for their rise.

Anyway, back to UKIP policy- perhaps their most significant manifesto promise is the swift exit of Britain from the European Union, the EU.
The EU is both a politically and economically binding union that, according to the organisers itself, "has delivered half a century of peace, stability and prosperity, helped raise living standards, and launched a single European currency, the euro". If the EU could be considered a single economy, which it often is, it would be the largest economy in the world- perhaps unsurprising however when one considers it is an amalgamation of 28 economies.
The Euro currency is perhaps the most prominent factors binding European nations- but it affects the British public little in a direct sense- for Britain is outside of this 'Eurozone', the union of nations sharing the Euro as its currency. Of course, we have the pound.

But what does directly affect Britain with regards to the EU are unifying policies such as free inter-EU movement of labour, inter-EU tariff-free trade, and the power to implement these measures in itself. Let's discuss these three and see just what UKIP and its supporters see as the problem.


Free Inter-EU Movement of Labour 

Ah, well this has been a controversial issue for sure. Immigration has been constantly featured in the news outlets of Britain for the past decade- debates have erupted over whether there should be more, whether there should be less, whether there shouldn't be any at all. Farage and his crew have frequently blasted the 'unconditional open door' to EU immigrants that is enforced upon Britain, like all EU states, by the Union. Article 45 of the EU treaty entitles EU citizens to rights such as that to seek employment in an EU country with no need for a work permit, enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages. It also rules that EU countries must acknowledge an EU citizen's qualifications- so if a doctor has achieved his qualifications in Britain, he must be also acknowledged as a doctor if he wants to move to Belgium for example, without having to take further education.

UKIP's line has been very clear on this issue- that immigrants are coming to Britain seeking better pay (Britain's minimum wage is nine times that of Bulgaria's for example) and standard of living (the NHS, better education, better infrastructure). These are surely natural desires- a father will naturally do his best to provide a better life for his family.
But Farage and co. believe this is bleeding Britain economically. UKIP have frequently criticised immigrants for coming to leech off Britain's divisive social welfare system, that can provide residents with benefits such as free healthcare and unemployment allowance. UKIP argue this is draining the economy as EU citizens from Eastern Europe in particular take residence in the UK, and benefit from social welfare 'without contributing a fair amount' to the economy. They are certainly correct that many people have chosen to move to Britain from Eastern Europe- Polish is the most commonly-spoken non-native language in Britain - but whether they are not contributing a fair amount is not so certain. Chef Jamie Oliver, owner of over 30 branches of his Jamie's Italian restaurants throughout the UK, claims "if we didn’t have any (European immigrants), all of my restaurants would close tomorrow. There wouldn’t be any Brits to replace them"- he cites the improved work ethic of many immigrants, suggesting strongly that they do contribute a fair amount. Perhaps what he forgot to note was also that many immigrants from Eastern Europe demand lower salaries than their British equivalents- the building industry has been particularly indicative of this- you can see via a quick google search of 'Polish builders' that they are in high demand due to their cheap rates and work ethic.

UKIP's solution? Farage has suggested that he upon victory in an election, he would enforce a five-year ban on immigration- he strangely admits he would even pursue this policy if it would have a negative impact on Britain's economy; telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme "If you said to me do you want to see another five million people come to Britain, and if that happened we would all be slightly richer, I would say, do you know what, I would rather we were not slightly richer." He believes this ban would return employment back to the 'British youth' rather than immigrants, and thus boost employment rates among the natives. Hmm, this may perhaps slightly smell of racism.
Farage believes a work permit system should also be enforced, via which checks would be made about a potential immigrant's suitability to work in Britain.


Inter-EU Tariff Free Trade

This is an interesting issue because it is one that UKIP have not really vocally opposed- in fact it is seen as the best bit of EU membership, allowing Britain to trade with other countries such as France and Germany without many of the extra trans-national fees that non-EU countries like the USA or Brazil may have to cough up. 
This is perhaps where UKIP's proposal to leave the EU falls, however. This free trade agreement benefits British businesses and if we were to leave the Union the tariffs would return- harming not only British businesses wishing to trade outwards but also European businesses looking to invest in Britain, who would similarly be faced by non-EU tariffs. 
A solution proposed by some would be the formation of treaties with EU nations to restore free trade, simply on an individual nation basis. However, as well as the time and diplomatic issues this would entail, it may just be impossible. Some EU member states may see Britain as betraying the Union (Angela Merkel has already suggested Britain is doing so within it) and may as a result refuse to sign agreements, resulting in real losses for Britain's economy.


EU Legislation

A widespread worry over the European Union is its undemocratic, centralised nature.
What is called the 'democratic deficit' has become frustrating to many EU citizens- a Pew Research poll found the majorities of seven major European countries believe their votes for EU representatives have no effect- including a staggering 81% of Italians. As a result of voter disenchantment at the complex, bureaucratic nature of EU decision making, voter turnout has falling dramatically in recent decades- by almost 20% between 1979 and 2009.
The EU lacks the very democratic values that it has set as a prerequisite for its member nations. According to The Atlantic, the European Parliament is the only one of seven EU institutions that is directly elected by EU citizens- and clearly even that is not satisfying much of the public.
The EU have meddled in national affairs- for example as a result of the recent Eurocrisis they took control of Greece's financial policy (though at the cost of a huge financial bailout), and more recently they have slapped a £1.7 billion bill on Britain for underestimating its economic growth. 
Eurosceptics believe leaving the EU would remove the EU's power over Britain in terms of policy and also discipline. They say too many decisions are being made in Brussels (a phrase you'll often hear in the EU debate, Brussels being the EU's base city) rather than in Westminster- and they argue more powers would be transferred to the British government, and therefore the British people, who hold the government responsible.

The EU debate will certainly continue to be a major talking point for the forthcoming 2015 UK General Election. The major parties have all promised referendums on EU membership should they come to power, and they have certainly been shaken by UKIP's growth from a protest vote into a potential candidate for power in Downing St- David Cameron and more shockingly Labour's Ed Milliband have set immigration at the top of their agendas in search to sway potential UKIP voters towards them. The high-profile defections of two Tory MPs earlier this year to Farage's party, and rumours of even Labour MPs following suit show truly how close in policy the political parties in Britain have become. 

The next decade is key for Britain- whoever wins the next General Election, membership of the EU will be a primary focus and whether the disenchanted among the public will sway government policy, we shall see. 

Mohammad Lone Editor

Monday, 27 October 2014

Why does EA's FIFA disappoint some people EVERY YEAR?


It happens every September. A new FIFA game comes out and along with it comes a barrage of hate. "FIFA 15 is the worst FIFA yet. EA just hype up the game to let everyone down.", exclaims user 'oritepal' on the EA forums. Nathan Ditum of The Telegraph claims "FIFA 15 fails to greatly differentiate itself from its previous incarnations"- user 'Bada_bing8' agrees, dubbing 15 "another pointless iteration".

These people are often justified in their criticisms- EA seems to have a habit of hyping up their 'upgrades' to the game that change it little- they even dedicated a whole trailer of such revolutionary features, such as visibly breathing players and, best of all, moving corner flags. Meanwhile they often postpone their often impressive upgrades for later iterations.
And this is before we get to some of the worst aspects of FIFA- including endless in-game microtransactions, and sometimes unbearable online servers.

Despite this, FIFA is the best-selling video game in the UK, and has been so since its release. Hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of gamers worldwide are quickly hooked onto each FIFA iteration as soon as it is released- I myself have been one of them before.
Why? The answer's pretty simple. These gamers aren't stupid- they don't buy games that suck- FIFA evidently has a lot going for it. It's an addictive game, but that's not the only reason why people buy it.
People often buy it because there's nothing better. Football is the world's most popular sport, so evidently a good quality, constantly innovating football video game is what many people want. But FIFA doesn't always offer this- as we've covered earlier.
So, someone who knew nothing about video games would ask the question- why don't they buy another football game? A better one?
The principle is a core of business economics. It's what people believe to be the democratic part of consumerism- that if you don't like a product 'x', you stop buying it, and buy another, product 'y'. If enough people do it, the company making product 'x' will see a fall in profits and therefore to boost them, they will improve product 'x' to be as good as 'y'.

But this can't happen with regards to FIFA. Why? Because there's only 1 alternative to FIFA- and that has been suffering in past years. Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) has always been in FIFA's shadow in the sports game industry- Konami, makers of PES have not even been able to launch PES 15 by the key September month- they expect to release in early November, two months behind FIFA.

The difference between the success of the two titles is staggering- in 2012/13, EA sold 13.5 million copies of its FIFA 13 title- Konami a paltry 1.9 million. PES 15 in priciple is competition to FIFA, but in reality it is nowhere near.

EA has almost total domination of the football games market- they have no effective competition, they have a monopoly. What does this mean?

This means they have little pressure to develop their games, to innovate, to make them better. If FIFA 16 is not that much better than 15, EA will be safe in the knowledge that they're not going to lose all of their customers- simply because PES is not effective enough competition to steal away customers. This makes complacency- the key reason why EA perhaps does not improve FIFA as much as they could every year.

It's also why EA can afford to offer so many microtransactions- they stand nothing to lose from it, because people will not avoid FIFA solely because of them; PES doesn't even have a similar game mode. EA can only profit from those who choose to spend extra money furnishing their Ultimate Team.

So, why couldn't PES improve and catch up? Again, the answer is monopoly. If you've ever played PES, you'll notice that many teams don't have real kits of club badges, or even names. Chelsea FC is creatively called 'London Blues', Arsenal 'North London'.
This is because PES needs licensing to use the real kits and badges of these clubs- but who holds exclusive rights to Premier League licensing? That's right, EA- it's exclusive to the FIFA series.
And this issue has for long been the key weakness of PES. No matter how realistic the match engine is, it's a straight turn off for many if they can't play in the kit, or even use the name of their favourite club.

Windows Vista, the software that gave nightmares
to millions of users.
Monopolies can cause businesses in general to become lazy, complacent and stuck in the past. Significant examples other than FIFA could include Microsoft in the noughties (stuck in the daze of Windows XP's monopoly), and AT&T and Verizon in the USA- cellphone providers who have been the bane of many a phone user's life in America, largely due to poor customer service and inflating contract prices.

And many monopolistic companies will be happy to gobble up any potential competition. In 2011, AT&T made an attempt to acquire T-Mobile, the closest competitor of the two aforementioned providers. Why? Because if T-Mobile then got a larger share of the cellphone market, AT&T would not be threatened- if they owned T-Mobile, they'd in fact make a profit from that. T-Mobile's share of the market would be gobbled up by AT&T- decreasing competition and furthering market monopoly.

There are so many ways a lazy company can block competition and thus increase their monopoly. There are basic stuff we don't always notice- for example patents are a formidable way of blocking competition in a new and emerging market.
On the other hand, companies can open up themselves to competition- like Tesla, who earlier this year opened up all their patents to their competition. Giving up patents, exclusivity rights, whatever monopolistic agreements, will not create an easy ride for any company but it can give them the kick they need to provide genuine improvements to their products.

If EA was not hiding behind their exclusive Premier League licensing, if PES shared the same rights, FIFA would be far more threatened- PES would still have a far way to go but perhaps EA would receive the kick it needs to provide genuine and lasting innovation to its customers.


Mohammad Lone Editor

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The American Nightmare: How the American Dream has tainted American society.



"The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America

One of the things that have defined the relatively young nation of the United States of America has been the sense of hope, the optimism and self-belief that is encapsulated in the notion of 'The American Dream'. 

The American Dream is founded upon the idea of the USA being a perfect meritocracy- that is a place where success is purely based on merit, on one's own efforts, regardless of their socio-economic background. So long as an individual worked hard, he could achieve his dreams.
So what are the 'rewards' of achieving the American Dream? Wealth? Social Status? Not exactly. Above all, happiness is probably the goal most associated with the Dream. After all, happiness is what every person seeks, regardless of whether they are subscribed to the American Dream or not.
But how does one achieve happiness? A popular belief that has existed throughout time and perhaps was never stronger than in the America of the Roaring Twenties, is that money=material=happiness. Put simply, it is the belief that money can buy you happiness.
Of course, money is indeed often a route to comfort (it's easier to cry in a Ferrari than in a tent), but happiness is a concept that does not equate to comfort but builds upon it. Comfort is just one of the many things that has potential to bring you happiness; many people can claim to be 'comfortable', but not truly happy.

The shallow belief in money and the power it brings being the only means to happiness is what links the 'American Dream' to the modern diseases of superficiality, materialism and consumerism. People see material as their end goal; taking it for granted that happiness will follow. It won't: just see any of the large selection of celebrity crises, they are pretty good examples of how money, power and fame does not guarantee happiness- in fact they can sometimes work to its detriment.

Further issues arise from the concept of the 'American Dream'. Society has little role to play in the Dream other than simply facilitating the rise of certain individuals. The 'every man for himself' attitude encouraged by this idea, that you can and should work hard for yourself to achieve your Dream has created selfish individuals who use their talents not to benefit society as a whole by contributing real value to society- be it by selling products that will better peoples' lives, or by alleviating poverty- but use their talents simply to their own gains- at most the gains of their close family and friends.

It's certainly true that like chocolate (yes, hang on with me here), money, after a certain point, is subject to the notion of marginal value. Some economists believe it is good to have massively wealthy individuals in a nation- see the earlier article on trickle-down economics- but more often than not, after a certain point wealth becomes of little value to an individual. 
It's like chocolate because one bar of chocolate is often very tasty. Maybe even the second. But after the third or fourth it becomes sickly- to the point that where you might have paid for the first, you might actually pay someone else to take the tenth. The value of the chocolate declines after a certain point- money does the very same, simply because the toys that the rich can purchase only go up to a certain value before they simply become ridiculous investments.
Take Bill Gates, the second wealthiest person in the world, with a fortune of over $80 billion dollars.
In an interview with The Telegraph last year, Bill clearly told the reporter: "Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point."- and it shows in how the wealthy are collecting money on an outstanding scale. 
This can be seen in how the collective wealth of households with more than $1m in investible wealth rose by 66% since 2008- despite global economic output rising only 16% in this time.
The wealthiest individuals of society have no actual use for much of their money- this isn't something too crazy to imagine. Bill Gates already has a home worth $150m, and most probably every material possession he could desire- so what else is he going to spend his $80b on? Interestingly enough, it is for something to benefit society at large- Gates has given over $8b in charity to improve global health, most notably fighting for the eradication of diseases such as polio. 

I digress. Back to the point, the American Dream harbours a sense of individualism that is detrimental to society at large. Bill Gates is relatively unique in his spending- the increase in wealth of the richest in society shows that most are pretty much hoarding cash for a rainy day that may or may not come. 
And the Dream also gives society an excuse to neglect the poor and unfortunate. Yes, of course there are poor people in every country who will be there largely because of their own deficiencies- usually attributed to their own lack of effort- but the belief in America being this perfect meritocracy has simply boosted the ego of much of the wealthy and given them an excuse not to contribute even a tiny part of their wealth to the unfortunate in society. It promotes the often incorrect belief that every poor person is their exclusively due to their own shortcomings. 

A prominent example of the corrupt side of the individualism encouraged by the Dream include the behaviour of bankers in the various financial crises of the past century. Acting out of self-interest purely, they gave away cheap, risky credit that ultimately they benefited from, at the massive cost of almost every customer they dealt with. 

Ultimately, the belief in America (or any country in the world, for that matter) being a perfectly plutocratic 'land of opportunity' is far from the truth. After all, a pure plutocracy would be one without the tradition of family inheritance, the sort that fed with a silver spoon the wealths of individuals such as Donald Trump and Mitt Romney. 

America has in many senses stayed true to the American Dream- and while many have gleamed success from it, one could argue that it has tainted society with an individual-centred spirit that has boosted certain individuals at the cost of numerous others.

SOURCES (and recommended reads):

Telegraph interview with Bill Gates http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/bill-gates/9812672/Bill-Gates-interview-I-have-no-use-for-money.-This-is-Gods-work.html

The Ultra Rich Are Hoarding Cash As Inequality Anger Simmers http://www.businessinsider.com/r-cash-stash-may-reflect-fear-of-wealth-going-out-of-fashion-2014-25

The World's Richest People are Sitting on Gigantic Piles of Cash that aren't Earning Them Anything http://business.financialpost.com/2014/06/11/the-worlds-richest-people-are-sitting-on-gigantic-piles-of-cash-that-arent-earning-them-anything/

Brian Miller, Mike Lapham The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation http://www.gatesfoundation.org/ 
Mohammad Lone Editor

Monday, 6 October 2014

Why Tesla Motors Could Be the Most Important Car Company in the World.


Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk- often dubbed 'the
real life Tony Stark'.
One of the hottest new companies to come out of the golden hills of Silicon Valley is not another computer-based company, but, for the first time, a car company. 
Tesla Motors, the brainchild of a founder of PayPal, Space X and numerous other ventures Elon Musk have set out to revolutionise the car industry.

Although it's not overly apparent at the moment, much of the conventional car industry today is broken. Yes, cars are being innovated, crammed with more technology in the shape of screens, cameras and whatnot, and they are becoming more comfortable and so on but fundamental environmental problems still exist (yes, despite the increasing MPGs we are seeing). 
First and most important is the issue of the environmental impact that cars today hold. In 2011 the number of cars worldwide surpassed 1 billion, with newly boosted economies such as China and India in particular seeing huge increases in car usage. And the growth is not expected to stop any time soon; in the same year, the OECD's International Transport Forum claimed we could see up to 2.5 billion cars on the roads by 2050.

Now there are two major environmental issues with such a large number of cars- firstly, the large majority of cars on the road (particularly in newer economic giants such as those in Asia) pollute huge amounts of harmful gases- mixtures of various hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and dioxide, which all contribute to a polluted air that with it carries increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer to humans, poor nutrition for plants and ominously it is a major cause of global warming, which, causing the melting of polar caps, could in future lead to huge natural disasters
Cars are certainly dangerous to the environment- according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, transportation (most of which is in the form of cars) contributes 27% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the USA.

Smog, one of the many unpleasant effects of pollution,
shrouds Paris.
Another key issues relies in the scarcity of the resources required to continue our dependency on automobiles. According to the World Bank, for every 1000 citizens of the USA there exists 786 cars in the country- when you consider the large chunk of people unable to drive, this makes for over a car per person, and the 300 million population of the US makes these statistics even worse. The US, while a prominent example, is not alone in this obsession with cars- the UK's figure lay at 516, still a large amount.
So we are so dependent on cars- but the large majority (over 95%) of cars sold in the US are conventional petrol/diesel affairs. Considering this, the seemingly endless growth of car ownership and the fact that BP claimed there to be only 53.3 years of oil left on the earth, it really does seem we can't afford to continue depending on these vehicles because one day in the near future, we will not be able to run them (one can state that, as has often been the case, new oil reserves will be found in the future, but can we really afford to rely on that anymore).

So, back to Tesla. Basically, they want to circumvent all these issues associated with conventional fossil fuel cars. So how do you do that? Make hybrid cars, of course.
But that's not enough; hybrid cars are hybrid, remember- a mixture of petrol/diesel and electric power. They still require these preciously damaging commodities to be used to work, and above a certain speed they still pollute.

The Tesla Model S, Musk's first major entry into the electric
car market.
So Tesla set its sights to popularise the fully electric car, with their first stab at the premium saloon market coming in the very easy on the eye Model S, and a forthcoming more affordable 'Model 3'. The aim is to bring electric cars (which require absolutely no fossil fuels to be inserted, nor burns any harmful gases) into the mainstream, but a certainly interesting move by Tesla has been that, unlike most companies, they seek not to monopolise this new industry by innovating internally and patenting endlessly to block out competitors. 
No, they are, spectacularly, doing quite the opposite: in a bold move earlier this June, Tesla opened up its collection of 249 patents to use by any competitor 'in good faith', something Elon Musk claimed to be part of the 'open source movement' with the intent of sparking genuine market development and competition in the bare area of electric cars.

In normal business terms, this is a ludicrous move- patents, after all, have been the focus of this mega conflict between two technology giants, Apple and Samsung. Conflict over patents cost these sides over a billion dollars- so why are Tesla just letting go of all of them?

It's a textbook example of what economist Umair Haque calls a development of 'market resilience' in his book The New Capitalist Manifesto. Tesla could have kept tight hold of the revolutionary patents they possessed, and with their incredibly 'cool' brand they could have dominated the electric car market for the next decade via their exclusive technologies. But no- Musk and co. opening up these patents has the effect of opening up the market to fair and vibrant competition. Tesla perhaps a year or two ago would have easily been crushed by huge competitors- but now it can stand on its two feet it wants to kick of the stabilisers and compete. 

BMW have already made their entrances into
Tesla's market with their i3 and i8 electric cars.
Opening up the patents shows a desire to see development in the market, and is actually a dangerous move for Tesla. BMW could tomorrow launch a Model S competitor in a fully electric 5-Series- the huge marketing and already existing prestige of the brand could possibly reduce Tesla to just a minor 
player in the market. Mercedes, Audi, Toyota, Ford, all these brands and more could do the same.

This is where the 'Resilience' mentioned by Haque comes into play; Tesla, by opening itself up to market competition, will have to fight to grow, fight via innovation, genuine development of technology, and so will its competitors if they want to grab a share of this growing market. Tesla won't have the security of a cocoon of patents- but neither will they have the temptation of laziness that comes with market security- just ask Microsoft about what complacency brought by monopoly did for them in the noughties (cough, Vista, cough).

Tesla opening up their patents was a bold move indeed, especially by a relatively new entrant into the automotive market. But it is a truly innovative, progressive move that will hopefully boost the automotive industry as a whole, and help us escape from the tyranny of conventional gas-guzzlers by providing a cleaner, affordable and most importantly more sustainable alternative.
It will be a long, hard battle for Musk and Co.- but we wish them the best of luck.
Long live Tesla. 

SOURCES (and recommended reads):
The Capitalist Manifesto by Umair Haque is a real eye opener to the next generation of corporation- the Googles, the Teslas, the Nikes and the Wal-Marts (yes, really, you'll have to read the book to find out why). It's definitely worth a read: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-New-Capitalist-Manifesto-Disruptively/dp/1422158586

Space X, Elon Musk's latest venture into the stars: http://www.spacex.com/

Number of Cars in the World surpass 1 Billion: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/08/23/car-population_n_934291.html

We Could See 2.5 Billion Cars on the Road by 2050: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=55943

Global Warming and Natural Disasters: 

Transport responsible for 27% of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions: http://auto.howstuffworks.com/air-pollution-from-cars.htm

World Bank Global Car Ownership Stats: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IS.VEH.NVEH.P3


Elon Musk Announcing Release of All Tesla Patents: http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you 

List of current 2014 Tesla Motors Patents (as of 5/10/14): http://stks.freshpatents.com/Tesla-Motors-Inc-nm1.php


Tesla Official Website: http://www.teslamotors.com

BMW Official Website: http://www.bmw.com
Mohammad Lone Editor

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Are Humans Rational?






Economics is a fascinating subject to learn from; it deals with an endless range of topics, from the markets and businesses of the world we live in to poverty and social welfare, from how best Nike could produce shoes to how you are affected by your government's policy. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but for everything that happens in the world it could be argued that there is an economic explanation behind it. No, really- economics can explain things ranging from health phenomenons like obesity (largely due to the flooding of cheap fast food onto the streets), to why BMWs are often so good (apologies for the shameless self promotion). Just read the brilliantly accessible Freakonomics books and you'll get the idea- economics is everywhere.

However it's important to remember that many of the conclusions economics produces is reliant on us, as humans acting rationally- that is, simply put, in a way where we evaluate the pros and cons of a decision we are faced with, and take the decision should we see the pros outweigh the cons. 

Economics relies often on this notion of rationality with its modelling- a basic example is how economics predicts we as consumers may react to a sale. Take a very basic economic model, one that concludes that consumers are more likely to buy a box of Quality Street chocolates from Tesco, if the same box in every other supermarket is more expensive. This is a perfectly rational decision to make- why would you pay more for the chocolate and buy it from Sainsbury's when you can get the same one from Tesco? This economic model relies upon the axiom that all human actors in an economy are rational- they will always choose the option that benefits them most. 

But questions recently have been raised over this reliance on belief in rationality in economic modelling; the major argument against this is simply that not all humans act rationally. This argument may seem a bit strange in essence but there are two levels to this that we must consider first:

1) We may not act rationally with regards to the economic modelling we are subject to 
Taking the example of the Quality Streets in the supermarkets, the rational choice according to the economic modellers will be that people will take the cheapest option (Tesco); but almost certainly people will fall outside of this category. People almost definitely will buy Quality Streets from Asda even if they have knowledge that the chocolates are cheaper in Tesco, and this is likely to be not due to their lack of judgement but a whole host of potential factors- convenience, for example. 
Even if Quality Streets in Tesco are cheaper than Asda, if I live next door to an Asda and the Tesco is a 10 minute drive away, the overall rational decision would be to walk to Asda (and save fuel money), yet people who behave rationally and take such actions, in the economic model will not be considered so, giving potentially inaccurate impressions of factors such as price that are being tested.
Or, I may have a lack of information- buying the chocolates from Morrison's, ignorant of the cheaper prices in Tesco is still a rational decision as I am still taking the best decision as far as I know.
So factors other than price play important roles in our decision making- the use of rationality as a leveller does little to emphasise a certain factor in economic modelling.

2) What is rational? 
There's arguably no single measure of rationality- what I mean in saying this is that there is a concept of individual rationality but there can be further complications to this- such as being part of a larger group. Let's look at an example: say you need to buy your Quality Streets but this time it's on behalf of your boss, who will use company finances to pay you back for your purchase. The money-saving side of you tells you to go to Tesco, but your laziness tells you to go to the Waitrose nearby, where the Quality Streets are more expensive. Some people would go to Waitrose, (it's not their money after all), acting for their own rationale of convenience, whereas others would find it rational to go to Tesco and save money. In both cases, the person will be acting rationally- but both of them will have separate reasons and thus their rationales are different!

3) Humans are often irrational.
A failure of the claim to total human rationality is that, simply put, humans are often irrational. Our judgements are often clouded by emotion- to our benefit and detriment. A real life example of this could be behind one of the main causes of the recent economic crisis- as the bubble of borrowing grew larger and thrived, bankers got caught in the wave of optimism, willingly giving loans to people who in reality had a low chance of being able to return the money (though there is a conflicting reasoning for their actions). Emotion inevitably plays a large role in a lot of our decisions; think of every time you hear someone 'going with their gut', or 'taking a punt'-  these are examples of relatively irrational decision-making.
IBM's Watson supercomputer: an example of the pure, cold
rationality that no human can possess? 
Interestingly, this is often seen as an advantage that computers and technology as a whole has over humans; for example, this rationality and lack of emotion in judgement has been highlighted as a positive of IBM's Watson supercomputer, especially regarding its ability to perform medical diagnosis.

Of course there is another side to the argument- a common economist's response to these claims of human irrationality is that, when we observe a large group or population as a whole, these individual irrationalities are likely to balance each other out, as people may take different decisions irrationally. Perhaps a better way to put the assumption would be to phrase it as assuming humans are rational actors as a population, as a whole, rather than as individuals.

This is certainly a fair point, however doubt remains over smaller groups of people, where an individual's irrationality will hold more weight.

So, can economics afford to rely on this assumption that humans are rational? And in any case, is there anything that can replace it as a leveller of the population in economic modelling?


Mohammad Lone Editor