Election Fundraising


Last week Jon Stewart did a very good piece on the emails that the Democratic campaign has been sending out ahead of the upcoming mid-term elections.

(Theoretically you can see the video here. Except that in the UK, you can’t. It suggests you go to Comedy Central’s UK site, but that only has some extended interviews, and little in the way of the political pieces.)

Anyway, that’s all very well. What bearing does that have on a Brit like me, not living in the country and not having a vote?

Well for some unknown reason, I’ve ended up on the mailing list of the “Ready for Hillary” PAC. Now I’m sure that I could have taken myself off this list if I’d used the unsubscribe button. But I thought – why not get an idea of how this all works and what gets sent through? So I’ve been quietly ignoring and “archiving” their emails for months. I’ve ignored all the hullabaloo surrounding a not-very-good book. I don’t want to pay thousands of dollars to go to a meal with her. I don’t want to sign her birthday card. In general, I’m a disinterested observer.

But while we wait to see if Hillary actually runs (OK, wait to see when she runs), my email address must have been shared with others in the Democratic campaigning world. Because I’ve been getting an awful lot of emails about an election that I don’t get a vote in, and taking place in a country I don’t live in.

In this instance it’s the “House Majority” PAC or Political Action Committee. And in a relatively short time, they’ve been sending a lot of emails over a relatively short period of time. This is what Stewart was talking about.

Since 28 September, so about three weeks ago, when I think the emails the started, I’ve had close to 60 messages. That obviously means plenty more than one a day – more like two a day. Then last week it was:

Oct 13 – 2
Oct 14 – 4
Oct 15 – 6
Oct 16 – 7

I think there was some kind of cut-off around then for fundraising. But 7 emails on the same subject in one day?

And then there are the subject lines. Full of gloom and despair:

“I am worried Adam”
“good news and bad news…”
“it gets worse…”
“we weren’t expecting this”
“utterly crushed”
“even more of a shock”
“no easy way to say it”
“..not in a good place”
“our kitchen sink is next?”
“we are still grinding away”

Well I suppose that last one was vaguely encouraging. But otherwise, those are a selection of subjects (with punctuation intact) in chronological order. Given the overall nihilistic tone of this campaign, I don’t think I could summon up the will to “Chip in $25″ after that lot.

I know the Tories and Labour have all been hiring their American election campaign managers and strategists. Top tip: don’t go all gloom and doom on us.

Update: I’ve received another THREE emails between first writing this piece earlier this evening, and hitting publish just now. I’m also slightly concerned that 38 Degrees are using the “Did you see this email…” format that sees multiple emails being sent with the same subject line.


One of the exciting things you can do in our digital world is become a beta tester. Lots of companies and organisations let you test out their new upgrades ahead of rolling them out to the population. It’s quite good fun if you like that sort of thing. They let you see features ahead of the population at large, and you can feed back your thoughts about a product – perhaps sorting out bugs and small problems before the push the product out more widely.

But they usually come with some kind of health warning. Things might break. Badly. It’s your choice.

I’m in the Android Twitter beta programme. The Twitter application gets refreshed quite a lot as their development team test out new features and ways of presenting things.

Unfortunately, their current Android app build is broken. It only broke for me at some point last night, but looking around – on Twitter, of course – it seems that others found it to be broken early during the weekend.

As things stand I can’t update my timeline or send a Tweet. I do have alternatives – the website for starters, and Tweetdeck on desktop (the Chrome app lives permanently in a tab). But I’m surprised how long Twitter has taken to sort out the issue. The easiest thing to do would be to roll back to the last working version. But as I write at 4.30pm on a Monday, it’s getting on for a full 24 hours that it has been broken for me.

A workaround is an uninstall/reinstall. But that only works for a quick refresh. Then the problem comes back.

A more permanent solution would be to drop out of the Twitter beta programme. If I was heavily reliant on their app, I would. But I’ll stick with it for now.

Such are the perils of being a beta-tester. And no Twitter on my phone for a bit is probably quite healthy (as long as I don’t go to Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest etc).

Unbundling HBO

I find it really interesting what was announced today by HBO. Essentially from some indeterminate point next, HBO will sell a service direct via the web.

Now in a world where we have Netflix and iTunes, this might not seem like a big move, but the pay TV market – and the American one in particular – is an interesting beast. HBO is a premium cable channel. That is, you buy it via a cable or satellite operator. But those operators will only it sell it to you in addition to a basic cable package. In other words, even if you only want to watch HBO, you have to take a big package of channels to be able to subscribe.

The US isn’t alone in this. It’s the same way that Sky and Virgin Media retail their channels. You take some kind of basic package, and then you can add, say, Sky Sports on top of that. The difference is that “basic” cable packages in the US tend to be bigger. And the US equivalent of Sky Sports, ESPN, tends to be included in that basic package. ESPN, incidentally, gets a decent chunk of your cable bill – probably somewhere around $6 a month. They use that pay for their sports rights. But before you say, “Wow – $6 a month is pretty cheap,” you need to think about the economics. It’s only that “cheap” because every customer is effectively forced to pay for it. If you’re not interested in sport at all, you’re still paying $6 a month for sport. If it was an add-on, then fewer than the 100m+ households that take cable (or satellite) would pay it. The costs would remain the same, so the price would go up. That’s why in the UK we have to pay £24+ a month for our Sky Sports package.

There’s a lot of talk in the US about “cord cutters” – those who don’t want to have to buy a full $80 a month cable TV package. They still want to watch Game of Thrones at the same time as everyone else though. So it’s a question of how they get it.

Many channels of course provide what the industry terms Over the Top (OTT) services. But these services tend to be within the walled gardens of the cable TV operators. It’s obviously not in cable TV comapnies’ interests to let that programming just swim around free. Indeed, they don’t really like letting customers pay for it on their own. If we can all start just buying the shows we want, then why should we have to pay for dozens of channels we don’t want? That ecosystem does support a broad range of channels. But it’s arguably propping them up too. You’re paying perhaps only a few cents a month for a channel, but that makes it profitable.

So OTT services like HBO’s HBOGo work hand in glove with your cable supplier. You have to enter your subscriber details to get access to the service. Typical you’ll be limited to a small number of devices to prevent you giving out your details to all and sundry. Although that doesn’t stop lots of kids who moved away from home using their parents’ cable bills to get their HBO. The so-called “millennials” are particularly likely to do this.

Ironically there’s also the problem that it’s those same cable TV companies that are about the only place you can get internet connectivity in the US. It makes them effective monopoly suppliers, and even triple-play phone/broadband/TV packages are still vastly more expensive than in territories where true competition exists, such as the UK.

But time marches on, and cables are being cut, although probably not to the extent that is sometimes portrayed.

And viewers still want to watch Game of Thrones regardless of whether they have cable or not. A campaign called “Take My Money HBO” was even launched.

Well it sounds like they’re now going to do it. And this is where it gets interesting. HBO is an enormously profitable part of Time Warner. Once upon a time, Time Warner also owned a big cable operation, but Time Warner Cable was spun off in 2009. Today Time Warner’s big divisions are Turner (including basic cable TV channels such as TNT, TBS, and the CNN stable), Warner studios (the movie and TV production divisions), and HBO.

HBO itself is enormously successful. In the 2013 Annual Report, it saw revenues of nearly $5bn – a combination of subscription fees and content sales (sales of programmes to non-HBO owned channels, and home video revenues). That generates about $1.8bn of Operating Income. But the Turner division generates nearly $10bn revenues and an Operating Income of $3.5bn. So in other words, there’s a sizeable chunk of business still being done in the cable TV market.

That’s important because of the potential ramifications that annoying cable operators could have. Could we see consumers cutting the cord and just buying HBO?

I suspect that while some will, it won’t be all that many.

There’s a lot of good TV these days, but it’s spread thinly over many channels. I got very excited about the forthcoming new series of Twin Peaks the other day. But that will be on HBO’s premium cable rival, Showtime (owned by CBS). Customers who cut the cord and want to watch Homeland or Twin Peaks will need to subscribe to a similar service from Showtime – assuming they make one available.

Then there’s the cost.

Looking at what HBO tells us about their revenues, based on the 2013 Annual Report, it turns over $4.231bn in subscription revenues. Now the report doesn’t break that out by territory, and there are other versions of HBO around the world. But it does note that HBO Nordic and HBO Asia combined have subscription revenues of around $48m. I’ve plucked $50m additional revenues from other territories out of the air. But to be honest, even if I’m $30m out, it doesn’t make much odds to the maths.

We’re left with $4.133bn for US subscription revenues.

According to this Variety piece, SNL Kagan (a company who model these things closely) say that HBO has 29.2m customers.

So if you divide $4.133bn by 29.2m and then by 12 months, you get a cable bill for HBO of $11.80. And that sounds right. This piece from last year has a range of prices for HBO broadly between $15 and $20 a month. But there are lots of offers, bundles and other things. Plus there’s almost certainly a cable company mark-up. So $11.80 feels right.

Interestingly, an Atlantic piece from 2012 suggested it was $7. I suspect, even allowing for a couple of years of Game of Thrones, that this was low.

What this all says to me is that consumers can be looking at something more like $20 a month when the new service launches.

This will appease cable operators who can say, “Hey, HBO is cheaper with us.” And yes, it’s at a premium compared to what Netflix charges, or Amazon Prime’s implied cost (Amazon did a big $100m+ deal for older HBO programming recently), but it’s not out of the ballpark. There are 70m cable households not currently paying for HBO. And even if some of them only subscribe for limited periods – the ten weeks of Game of Thrones – then it could make sense for all concerned. Yet another reason why those Game of Thrones DVDs take such a long time to get released.

I’m not sure that there are many other companies who could do this. HBO revenues aren’t related to advertising, and cable companies can’t get too annoyed and pull HBO. If they did, then they’d simply lose customers. It’s certainly an interesting move!

This whole piece is probably a bit academic for a UK audience. But it’s interesting that Sky is effectively already doing this same thing with Now TV. £9.99 for a day’s sport is a rip-off compared to £24 a month. But £10.99 for the Ryder Cup weekend might be something of a bargain.

Twin Peaks – Again

Yesterday I was very excited to learn that Twin Peaks is coming back.

I even jumped through the rigmarole of getting a YouTube embed code from a mobile device (seriously – it should be easier).

What you also need to know, dear reader, is that I was an impoverished student when Twin Peaks first aired in the UK. Well less impoverished than I might have been, since I was on a placement year, and that meant I got a small wage.

But nonetheless, I bought myself an ex-rental VHS VCR (new was out of bounds), to plug into the small TV in my Edinburgh flat, solely to record the series onto cassette. I think the VCR cost me £99.

The first season of Twin Peaks began airing on BBC Two in the UK on 23 October – a Tuesday (it also got a Saturday repeat each week). A sultry Sherilyn Fenn was on the front cover of that week’s Radio Times. It had aired earlier in the year on ABC in the US, running between April and May.

Fortunately, the BBC began season 2 just after Christmas on 8 January 1991. That was actually pretty good for a US import at the time. Starting a series in the New Year meant that UK viewers would get it uninterrupted until the end of the run, by which time it would almost be in sync with the much more interrupted US scheduling model. And so it was that Americans saw the final episode on June 10, 1991, while UK viewers saw it just a week later on June 18.

Twin Peaks was also the show that introduced me to internet discussions. Now that was a pre-web internet. But I’d learnt about Usenet and was using that a fair bit. Yes – I was reading, and very occasionally contributing – to alt.tv.twin-peaks.

I had Angelo Badalamenti’s awesome soundtrack on cassette, and I bought the Penguin edition of the “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer.”

In the UK we had the strange version of the pilot episode that wrapped things up as a TV movie, but I could never find that. Then I bought season 1 of the series on DVD, only for them not to release season 2 for ages, until finally we got the Gold Box set back in 2007 (I picked up an American copy – concerned it would never make it across the Atlantic).

Now of course there’s the “Entire” Mystery boxset on BluRay to watch. I need to get hold of that asap…

TV Ignorance

There’s a lot of ignorance both on television and around it. That’s why I’ve never watched an episode of Gogglebox (and almost certainly never will). But that’s not what I’m talking about.

It seems to me that as I live more and more of my TV life through a combination of PVR and On Demand playback, I’m becoming much less aware of what’s coming up – even though I’d be really interested in the programmes. Now behaviour may be atypical – news and sport being the only two things I usually watch live – but I think that this is still true even as a generalisation.

Two recent cases in point.

On Sunday night there’s a new three-part Simon Reeve programme – Sacred Rivers. The first episode is about The Nile. I only learnt about the series a few minutes before I started writing this piece. If I hadn’t seen a preview on the BBC’s intranet, I honestly wouldn’t have known it was coming up, even though I’m certain it has been heavily trailed.

Then on Tuesday, the new Brian Cox series starts – Human Universe. I’m 99.9% certain that this has been massively trailed – but I’ve seen none of them. Again, it was an internal communication that alerted me to it (And I also saw Cox himself, alongside, I think, Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, being “mobbed” in the building yesterday).

To be clear, these are both programmes that I certainly want to watch.

Now to be fair, I think I’d have spotted both of these when I made my weekly PVR selections from The Guardian’s Guide supplement on Saturday. And because I read a daily newspaper, I’d have got a second opportunity on the day of broadcast. I might even have spotted the programmes in the EPG. And even if I’d missed the transmission, I might have found out about the series after the event and caught up on iPlayer.

But I do think that all broadcasters are going to have to carry out cleverer marketing to alert viewers to upcoming shows. It always amazes me, if you visit a big city in the US, the extent to which outdoor advertising is used to promote upcoming TV series. Indeed, if your show doesn’t get that advertising, producers often hold it against the network if the show is subsequently cancelled.

What I don’t want to see is more intrusive in-show advertising. But one thing strikes me as interesting – I think the BBC has less of an opportunity for PVR watchers like me than the population as a whole. Because while I might fast-forward through ad-breaks, the sponsorship break-bumpers and the invariable trails either side of those, means that Sky Atlantic is able to do a much better job of alerting me to The Knick during the season ending episode of Ray Donovan, than the BBC can during Doctor Who.

Retargeting – Mostly a Waste of Money

Even though I live and breathe the internet, I only recently learnt what “retargeter” or “retargeting” companies are, and what it actually is that they do.

You’ll know it even if you hadn’t heard the term either.

You know that thing you were thinking of buying? Well perhaps you looked at on Amazon/John Lewis/Asos/wherever. But you didn’t complete a purchase. You looked at the specifications, perhaps read a few customer reviews. But for whatever reason, you failed to buy it.

Well retargeting companies use the fact that you nearly bought something, or at least had a look at it, to sell display ads that appear on other pages of the internet that you subsequently visit. So when it appears that you’re being trailed around the internet by a camera or duvet you browsed for earlier? Well you are. They know you were interested, and you’re theoretically the easiest conversion to make. You just need to be pushed over the line, complete the purchase and everyone’s a winner.

In case you didn’t know, when you visit the average ad-funded page, a real-time auction is taking place based upon what the ad networks know about you, to deliver appropriate advertising. This all happens in milli-seconds as the page loads, and it explains why you seem to be followed around the web so much.

So much for the theory. In practice, it seems broken in many ways. In a world of big data, it’s remarkable how many companies don’t do it right.

On many occasions, something in the system completely and utterly breaks, and I’ll find a company with who I completed an actual purchase, still retargeting me with the same item that they’ve already shipped to me. This isn’t a one-off occurrence, it happens multiple times.

Waste of money.

Not only that, of all things in the world that you can sell me, very probably the last thing I want to buy right now, is the very thing I’ve just bought. Even amongst FMCG brands that I regularly purchase, an immediate need for additional items is unlikely. Seriously, you’re better off trying to flog me a Ferrari that I will never ever buy, than the door-hooks I actually just bought.

Then there is the fact that retargeting seems to take surprisingly little account of price. I was recently shopping for a £2.99 bike-light mount. This is a low value item, and basically I just wanted a retailer who stocked it. I didn’t really care where it came from. I find it amazing that it’s worth even a fraction of a penny to advertise that item to me. This isn’t a considered purchase – a laptop or a television, for example. This is a no questions asked item that I just need.

Waste of money.

Much worse than any of this is the fact that the retargeting companies don’t take account of the fact that most of us do our own price comparisons if the item is of any significant value. I research the model blender I want. I search a few retailers and check the prices. Then I buy from one of them. Except, the other retailers don’t know that I bought it from a competitor. So I’m followed around by blender ads for days afterwards.

Waste of money.

It gets really odd when a big company should know better. Real case in point. I searched YouTube for a new song by an artist I liked. The song appears on a new album, and I get a pre-roll for that album. Fine. That makes sense.

Then I go to Google Play and buy that very album. Back on YouTube, any video I watch is now deluged with pre-rolls for that very same album. Google knows I own it.

It’s a complete waste of money for the client. They should be trying to sell me anything else in the world apart from the album I just bought.

Perhaps in that instance there is some kind of Chinese wall between Google Play transactions and YouTube, but I’d bet that some kind of terms and conditions that I’ve accepted – without reading – allows that data to be shared.

Personally I think while I get a bit annoyed about it, and it feels a bit creepy that companies and ad networks know so much about me, it’s actually the client companies that are losing out. They are flushing their marketing budgets down the toilet in the belief that this is some of the best marketing cash they could spend.

No wonder Dominic Mills in an opinion piece at Mediatel earlier this week described retargeting as “a grubby business.”

I wrote this piece because I was seeing adverts for something that is currently in my Amazon basket on other websites.

I will be buying it.

I just wanted to get something else at the same time, and I don’t need either item for a couple of days. No rush.

In the meantime, some agency somewhere is wasting a client’s money spending cash advertising something directly to me that I’m in the process of buying. Brilliant.

Radio Update

There are various bits of radio news over the last few days that are worthy of note:

Capital has a new advert – Using all those artists who showed up for the Summertime Ball and did bits in front of a green screen. It’s a neat trick that they’ve been doing for a while – and very effective.

Radio 3 has a new controller – Radio Today was so excited, it Tweeted the news about 100 times (a server crashed or something). And why is that Radio 3 can stir up the most vitriolic things I’ll read anywhere on the internet with regards to radio? Passion for a music or a station is a wonderful thing, but…

BBC World Service English has a new Controller – Probably not at the top of anyone’s radio news digest, but World Service output has an audience that dwarfs all the other stations I’m mentioning here.

Sky Sports News Radio is closing down as a live service – I think this is a little sad, and I’m surprised that Sky never tried to make more of this service. It would have been great to see a Sky service on an application for the upcoming “D2″ second commercial national multiplex. If nothing else, a broadcast radio service might have acted as full-time marketing for their paid services, constantly advertising the breadth of coverage that they offer.

And Bauer Radio has made some significant changes – Gone is the Passion and Place portfolio, and we now get the more defined National and Place separation of stations.

Let’s get into that Bauer news a little more since:

1. I used to work there, and

2. This is the biggest change Bauer has made in recent years, and they’re the second largest commercial radio group in the UK.

The three national brands make sense. This January, Absolute Radio 90s will give way to the London version of Magic on Digital One, while at the same time the “northern” Magic brands that weren’t actually the same as the London Magic FM will rebrand. That makes things cleaner. The local brands will become adjuncts of their FM siblings, Key 2, Metro 2 etc. And we’ve known Magic was coming to national DAB at some point, ever since Neil Fox told Media Guardian sometime around last year’s Radio Festival.

Perhaps the “bravest” part of this move is giving up The Hits brand and making that a younger focused sibling of their local FM brands – Key 3, Metro 3 etc. The Hits is a much unloved brand in many ways. It’s sat there through thick and thin with barely any promotion. Of course it was once the only free to air music TV brand on Freeview, and it gained a lot of traction there. Bauer was an early advocate of Freeview and locked up a good amount of spectrum, at what one would imagine was an attractive price. The Hits TV channel morphed into 4Music back in 2008, but the radio station continued. And despite a relative paucity of carriage, it had some excellent RAJAR figures. Too good to be true even! But Bauer was smart in utilising its brands cross-platform.

I think Bauer is just going to have to bite the bullet with The Hits and it’ll lose audience before the “3s” regain it. What will be interesting is how the 3 stations are presented and marketed to the audience. There won’t be a great deal (any?) local programming on these services, but while the talk is about DAB, the actual driver will surely be internet listening which is very strong amongst the 15-25s that these stations are targeting.

In some ways this is sensible then – killing a generally unloved brand even though it has some significant listening. Let’s not forget that Bauer already has a very strong Kiss brand to compete with Capital, complete with sister brands Kisstory and Kiss Fresh both of which are getting expanded DAB coverage.

The short term loser is Absolute Radio 90s. But with D2 on the horizon, it’d be hoped that some existing as well as new services will make it onto that platform. We’re a month away from applications needing to be in for D2. I expect many in commercial radio to be very busy over the next few weeks!

Incidentally, aren’t we still awaiting Global adding a Heart sub-brand to the D1 mulitplex to replace Smooth? They got permission a while back.

Matt and James have both opined on the Bauer subject, and I’ve tried not to duplicate what they’ve already said. Note that, as always, these are my opinions, and don’t represent those of my employer – or my previous employer come to that.

Finally, I’ve carefully avoided getting into Radiocentre’s new piece of research on audience impressions of Radio 1 and Radio 2, upon which I believe that they are basing their response to the BBC Trust review of service licences. It’d be a bit of tightrope to walk. Read the summary at Media.info.

I am looking forward to seeing details of their other new research though, which is being released today at a big event in London.

Douglas Adams

12 May 2001 was a big day for me. It was the FA Cup Final, with Arsenal playing Liverpool in Cardiff. And it was also a good friend’s wedding in London. The match didn’t go so well for an Arsenal fan like me (forced to sneak off during the reception to watch the match on a 3″ Casio TV), but the wedding was excellent, and celebrating it ran long into the night.

Sometime around 5.00am, with plans to head home, and possibly having imbibed a little, I found myself in the lobby of the Charlotte Street Hotel (this was a very nice wedding), where they had complimentary copies of the Sunday Times. I picked one up and was completely knocked off my feet to read on their front page that Douglas Adams had died.

This was a massive body blow to me. I couldn’t stop thinking it about it all the way home, and for many days afterwards. When someone notable or famous that I’ve admired usually dies, I tend to feel glad that we have their work to look back at. Perhaps I’ll read a book, or watch a film of theirs. (It is true that I was similarly knocked for six by Iain Banks’ death too).

I loved Douglas Adams’ books, his writing in general, his computer games – I had Starship Titanic, even if I never finished it, and just the man in general. He seemed like someone to aspire to be, even if it felt like a long time between his books. He loved technology (Why can’t I find Adams’ interview on The Kit anywhere online?)

At an event earlier this week in Foyles, discussing Adams and his life, the panel asked the room how they first came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like many in the room, I can’t quite remember. I may have caught an episode or two on the radio, but those would have been repeats and on the radio in the kitchen that was solidly tuned to Radio 4. It’s also possible that I’d read the first book. Anything that suggested Science Fiction in a bookshop or library tended to get my vote, and I’d read it.

But I know for certain that I watched the 1981 TV series. What I remember, now I think about it, was that in 1981 I was in my final year of primary school, and one of the end of year traditions was that there was a fancy dress parade.

Age 11, I went as Arthur Dent. For one thing, it was easy – I already owned the pyjamas and a dressing gown which formed the major part of my outfit. The more complicated bit was making a copy of “The Book”.

I’d been given a Texas Instruments calculator by my uncle at Christmas. It was one of those models that had a red LED display. I’d taken it apart on several occasions to see how it worked.

As a result, it no longer worked.

But with use of a tissue box, paint, and the remnants of a non-working calculator, I now had an excellent “book” to go with my costume. I forget whether I took a towel.

What I do know is that few, if any, of my classmates or teachers knew who Arthur Dent was, and someone who’s mum had obviously worked very hard, won the prize for going as Bertie Bassett, of Liquorice Allsort fame. I felt robbed as I’d “made” my own costume and not relied on my mum.

On Tuesday’s panel were Jem Roberts who has a new authorised biography of Adams out, The Frood, and author Marie Philips who has recently had the very excellent The Table of Less Valued Knights published – a somewhat different take on Camelot – and has a blog about Adams on the Foyles website.

There was also a chap from Foyles, who’s name I missed [Update - thanks Marie] Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, chairing the event. Given his viciously hard Hitchhiker’s themed quiz – the lack of a follow-up email suggests that I got fewer marks than the guys in the front row wearing “Don’t Panic” T-shirts – and his line of questioning, he is clearly an Adam’s aficionado.

The event started promptly at 6.42pm, and the talk was of Adams as a writer, his influences, his lackadaisical attitude to work, his failure to write female characters (“Write a character, then make them a woman,” said Marie), his agnosticism, his love of technology, and whether he’d have been good on Twitter. On the latter, the feeling of the panel was “probably”, but there was also a fear that we’d have never had another work from him again. Sadly, we’ll never know.

The panel got a little sidetracked on the film version, and all the things that were wrong with. Marie especially hated it. I’ve just re-read my “review” from 2005, and see that I was relatively kind, if not exactly bowled over. I think the fact that they gave me a towel at the screening I attended may have swayed my opinion. I still have the towel. That said, I’ve only ever seen the film that one time. I’ve never felt the need to revisit it when it’s on TV. But I think I’ve taken a more benevolent view of remakes as I’ve got older, if only because the well of original thought seems to keep drying up, and more and more classics are being remade. So yes, it may be true that someone discovers, or is put off from discovering, a fantastic book from a poor film version, but then the first version of Hamlet you see might be poor. Should that detract from Shakespeare’s play? And I can just avoid something if I like. I know that there is a monstrous Nic Cage version of The Wicker Man in existence. But I’ve never seen it, and my memories are not spoiled by that knowledge. I just have to be a little careful flicking around late night TV when looking for something to watch. See also The Ladykillers (love the Coens, but sorry), Edge of Darkness, State of Play, etc.

The new Foyles is rather magnificent incidentally. They’ve moved into premises vacated by Central St Martins when they moved out to their new King’s Cross home. Although I do somehow miss having to go to three tills to make a book purchase. I remember first going to their Charing Cross Road bookshop with a friend and his mother. I’d chosen a book, and the process was then:

– Queue at a teller who would take the book from you and hand you a chit with the price on it.
– Queue at a cashier and pay the value of the chit and get your receipt.
– Queue back at the first teller with your validated receipt and collect your book.

Also, fiction titles were organised by publisher rather than just author, and we all know who publishes what title don’t we? On the other hand, you could find some seriously obscure books and books that wouldn’t be available anywhere else in a pre-internet age.

Once Charing Cross Road was the home of bookshops in London. Sadly the way things are going, Foyles is going to be just about the only bookshop left on the street.

But back to Tuesday night.

It’s traditional at these things that afterwards the writers on stage will sign copies of their books. I already had a copy of Marie’s latest book which I’d read and brought along, but I picked up a copy of Jem’s book and went over to the table to get them signed.

Now here’s the thing, I can never think of anything particularly sensible to say to an author in that situation. Call it social ineptness. I want to make some kind of small-talk. It always feels like everyone else at these events is already a best buddy: Friends coming along because the author is in town; bookshop staff keeping their author happy topping up the wine and rushing to get fresh nibbles. But as I wait in the queue thinking of something sage and witty to say, it can get a little garbled in my head. A few instances:

– Years ago at a signing with John Simpson, I’d just got a job in the marketing department of a small local newspaper. When I said I told him I was interested in journalism and this was the new job I had, he looked at me with a little pity as if to say, “Then why are you working in marketing?”

– At an Iain Banks signing, I was so in awe of the man, it was just, “Make it out to Adam – the usual spelling.” Fortunately Margaret Atwood hadn’t yet published “MaddAddam” – the only way I can think you could misspell my name.

– At a Neil Gaiman signing, the queue was so long behind me that I was scared to engage in any kind of conversation in case he was still signing in the venue post-midnight.

– At a Dave Gorman book-signing, I didn’t mention that we had a mutual friend, and had met in the pub at least twice. That made it all the more awkward the next time we met in the pub with our mutual friend, when he remembered me being (silent) at his last book signing. I picked up Dave’s new book on the way out of Foyles incidentally.

– At a recent very popular signing by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, she first of all asked, “Would you like a date?” Huh? Ah. She actually had a plate of dates. I politely declined. Then I explained that my father was a massive fan (he is) and that’s why I wanted one book made out to him. It still made me sound like I was just a bit “meh” over her books though. I’m not.

Anyway, this is all by way of a bit of an apology to Marie, of who’s new book I said I’d “quite liked” – which sounds simply awful. Actually, I greatly enjoyed it, and laughed out loud. To compund things, I then brusquely told her that she had to “Listen to the CDs,” having told us earlier that her experience of Hitchhiker’s had mostly been the books (and the film). Sorry about that. The CDs (or downloads) are worth getting though!

Polling and the Scottish Referendum

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What an interesting few weeks it has been for poll-watching. I say that from my London perspective. Obviously north of the border, this is a debate that has been running for years now, and us southerners have only really woken up to it recently.

In particular, we woke up to it following a Sunday Times poll a few weeks ago that suggested that the Yes camp might actually win – and Scotland leave the Union.

However, in terms of the science of polling, there are some fascinating pieces being written about the difficulties faced by polling companies in this referendum. They would seem to boil down to the following:

– Nobody has polled a referendum like this before, making it really hard
– The potential “shy Noes”
– An actual result ~50% has the biggest margin of error possible

Let’s go through those one by one.

Polling companies tend to rely very heavily on previous voter behaviour to predict what is going to happen. They can try to weight for actual behaviour last time when trying to predict what will happen this time. They know which groups are likely to vote (the elderly) and which aren’t (the young). And they’ve got solutions in place for issues that they’ve encountered before.

For example on last week’s More or Less on Radio 4, the example was given of Conservative voters in the 90s. People were a bit nervous about admitting that they would vote Conservative – even to pollsters. Polling organisations have to take account of that.

But when you have no historical data to work from, and when so many new registrations have been made, leading to what will surely be a record turnout, you really don’t know for certain what’s going to happen.

The “shy Noes” are a good example of this. There’s a view that the noisy and vociferous “Yes” campaign has caused those who are voting “No” to keep shut up – some even claim to be scared of admitting in public that they’re a “No.” Not living in Scotland (although I did for year in the early 90s), it’s hard to know what the truth is. I do know that when I watched the BBC debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, it felt like Salmond won as much for the much louder cheering he got from the audience. It’s not at all surprising that “Yes” can be made to feel much more positive than “No.”

Statistically, if the true result is somewhere in the region of 50% behaving one way, the margin of error is worse than if the results was say 10% or 90%. With a result down the middle, you get a bigger margin of error, or you need a significantly bigger sample to mitigate against this. Even if polling organisations do the latter, there’s no guarantee that they’ll not end up wrong though because of the first two issues I’ve raised.

There are some worthwhile pieces of reading from Anthony Wells of YouGov and Ben Page of Ipsos MORI that get into this in a bit more detail.

Also of interest is the fact that Betfair is paying out for “No” ahead of the vote. Bookies are rarely wrong.

My own personal belief is that, despite that polling scares, the “No” vote will get it. I think the margin will be bigger than the currently reported 4% in the polls, as I think the “shy Noes” are a real thing. Added to which older “No” voters are more likely to get to Polling Stations that younger “Yes” voters and actually cast their votes. Indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if the margin was as big as 8-10%.

You can give me a large slice of humble pie to eat on Friday morning if I’m wrong.

As for which way Scots should vote? Well my grandfather was Scottish, and thus I could represent Scotland in many sports (were I good enough); I’ve been on holiday there many times; I’ve lived there for a time; and my name is Scottish – affiliated with the McDonald Clan, you can find a Ben Bowie near the southern edge of Loch Lomond. I love Scotland. But for the life of me, I can’t see that a “Yes” vote would be anything other than disastrous for the people. The oil reserves are a big unknown – improved extraction techniques not withstanding. Salmond still hasn’t given a satisfactory answer as to how he could use the pound (and he won’t be using the Euro). Prices will have to rise – it’s the cost of doing cross-border business. And I can’t see any way now that Scotland won’t get devomax. So in many respects it’s a win for Scotland anyway. The complaints of about lack of representation in Westminster are no worse than much of northern England. Getting into the EU isn’t a given (Spain won’t be in a rush to let Scotland in for example).

Oddly enough I find Alex Salmond the weakest part of the “Yes” campaign. Beyond his lack of a cogently-argued economic policies, his brown-nosing of Rupert Murdoch is worse than anything Tony Blair did. And his obsequiousness towards Donald Trump, as highlighted in Anthony Baxter’s excellent You’ve Been Trumped (and apparently, in his follow up that I’ve yet to see – A Dangerous Game) did not endear me to the man. I’m told that in Scotland, the “Yes” campaign is more than just about Salmond. But you wouldn’t know that from afar.

Interestingly, the Scottish Sun has failed to come out for the “Yes” camp as many had been suspecting. But as much as anything, this will be a commercial decision made by Murdoch, much as he’d like to give Westminster a bloody nose after the whole phone hacking fallout. It’s never so much “The Sun Wot Won It” as “The Sun backs the winner.” This time around they don’t know who the winner will be. And backing the wrong horse could endanger sales.

I think one of the toughest things after this campaign, is the Scottish people reconciling their futures with one another. Whichever way the vote goes tomorrow, half the people are going to be disappointed – bitterly disappointed in many cases. That’s going to take more getting over than a general election, where you always know that within 4-5 years, you’ll get another chance.

Finally, if you’ve not seen John Oliver on this, then he’s very much worth a watch. And they’ve un-geoblocked this segment for us Brits especially!

(Just nobody point this out to them. I can trust you on that can’t I? Mum’s the word.)