“Inside” the US prison system

“Inside” – prisoner Michael Santo’s book about his 18 years in the US Federal prison system is staggering. Terrible stories and jokes about life behind bars in the US system have crept out over the years, while Amnesty International, amongst others, has condemned the abuse. But what Santos does is personalize it – through stories of his time ranging from hard-core federal pens – where the gangs rule, through to the softer white collar ‘camps’. Nothing makes sense. Despair prevails.

Almost in passing Santos tells of killings, rape and ultraviolence, all in an environment that rewards the supercriminals and crushes the rest. To survive in the system it seems you have be part of a gang, make yourself useful to inmates (Santos’ strategy) or gain general respect through acts of ultraviolence.  If word gets out that you are a snitch or sex offender, then expect to be killed.

Along the way there are a very few people that turn their lives around in spite of the system, but most appear to be crushed and turn to the gangs for socialisation and criminal training.

What is maddening is that Santos initially describes his time in Kent City Jail, where prisoners are rewarded for good behavior by an upgrades in facilities, and punished by downgrading. Surveillance is total and inter-prisoner crime minimal. The system works to move inmates to more self-responsibility, and eventually release. Rehabilitation can be done, it seems.

But not at any of the other prisons we hear of – the Federal penitentiaries are, it seems, out of control, with the best facilities awarded to the gang bosses, and drugs, violence and sex ever-present.

The white collar camps are removed from the violence – but only non-violent and shorter term prisoners get sent there. The dehumanization persists throughout the system.

Santos writes well, and I read the book in one sitting. Worth a read, but chilling.

Code sharing good, tourism good. Reconcile.

Qantas and AirNZ will not code-share. Thank goodness.

Code-sharing is undoubtedly good for the airlines as it allows them to load their aircraft more and increase prices to closer to the monopoly price. Unfortunately the societal cost is large – not only do travelers pay more per flight, but they also spend our flying time in cramped full planes. Meanwhile the number of tourists arriving in New Zealand drops.

The economics of international flights to New Zealand are skewed, and the positive externality of extra tourists arriving is not captured in the return the airlines get.

Airlines want to price so that they maximize their profit – and this most likely means prices that are a bit higher than they are currently. The result would be lower volume (and lower costs by removing flights). A code-sharing agreement would let them do that.

Meanwhile New Zealand and Australian economies benefit greatly from tourism,  want to maximize the number of tourists arriving, and also want them to arrive after a positive flying experience – which means cheap and comfortable.

Cheap and comfortable means partially filled planes, bigger seats, lots of flights and low prices. This is essentially uneconomic for the airlines.

Given that the difference may be in the tens of dollars per passenger, we should perhaps think about how the tourism industry can pass on some of the extra income from extra tourists back to the airlines. This would align incentives – low prices and comfort for passengers, volume at economic prices for the airline and more volume for the tourist industry.
The issue is that New Zealand’s (correct) desire for active tourists – those that don’t come on packages – means that our tourism operators are small and specialized rather than offering complete experiences. Thus they do not have the power individually to pay kickbacks to the airlines to subsidize low fares. Collectively will be hard without Government involvement.

Straight Government subsidies are out – or are they? Possible ways to do this are by playing with tax on fuel (if there is any), airport taxes, or even a straight payment for every foreign tourist that pays less than $x per passenger mile when coming here (and travelled from further afield than Australia). That last one does not address the cramped planes issue. Perhaps a $x per passenger mile x seat-pitch number would work better…

Some thought required.

PS3 sales banned on eBay UK, restricted on eBay USA

Stupid. Really stupid.

eBay USA is restricting sale of Sony PS3’s to members with high feedback, and even then only one per member. eBay UK is prohibiting sale of PS’s until pre-sales commence next year.

Thus does eBay, which normally serves to reduce barriers, prevent trading across borders. The obvious play is to buy PS3’s in Japan and export them to the USA and UK.

Here in New Zealand parallel (grey) importing is legal, and as a result we have cheap prices. Sadly there are, however, still no PS3’s for sale on Trade Me.

Overstock.com – and why it does not work

eBay wannabe competitor Overstock just had a horrible 3rd quarter, with revenues down on the previous year. Although it’s a cyclical business, pundits are concerned that revenues fell despite better internal operations. In the last quarter the conversion rate, and Google ads were less effective. Meanwhile the brand suffers (while attracting the morbidly curious like myself) through the strange rantings of the CEO.

Overstock, as its name suggests, sells ‘end of the line’ and ‘over-produced’ products. While the mangement apparently has shown recently that they can control expenses, pundits should be concerned for different reasons…

1: Overstock products are just rubbish – nobody wants them, and that’s why they are ‘end of line’. Even if they are not end of line, just seeing product on the site make customers feel like those produces are last years cool, instead of this years hotness.

2: Overstocks prices are too high – Selling rubbish can work, but the second problem is their prices – they are just too damn high. Why buy a Canon SD600 camera for $250 when you can get it for $222 from buy.com or (special hidden price) $164 !(after $50 rebate) from Amazon? In theory Overstock should be selling at prices beneath manufacturing & distribution cost, thus giving the underwhelming production and sales planners at least some income to offset their loss. In practise it appears that the Overstock products are well over cost.

3: Supply will reduce over time – Great companies are good and getting better at just in time manufacturing and shipping, and so the volume of genuine excess product available to Overstock will tend to reduce, not increase. Without supply Overtock is just another online store, and one burdened with an image problem.

Job advertising

Surprisingly only now has the number of job listings online in New Zealand overtaken the number of job listings in newspapers – thanks to the launch of Trade Me Jobs.

NZ Job listings

Source: ANZ

For now the entry of online players has increased the size of the market, but that downward slope of newspaper classifieds must have Fairfax and APN worried. They have of course already entered the online market through APN’s search4jobs and Fairfax’s acquisition of Trade Me, and the launch of Trade Me Jobs. However the revenue from those big display advertisements in the newspapers is huge, and it is at risk if people no longer see newspapers as a place to look for jobs. NZ Job listings - overall number increases

Source: ANZ

The reason newspapers have survived so long is that they are seen as great for attracting the passive searchers. Passive searchers are valued more highly than active searchers, as they are more likely to be in a job which they enjoy and see no reason to leave. Their active counterparts are demonstrating that they are less happy where they are, and are therefore more likely to be less valued.

Headhunters are the best, yet most expensive, way to capture passive job (non-)searchers, newspapers have, until now, been seen as next best. Expect that to change.

I see the end game with mid and low market jobs online almost solely, higher end jobs using a variety of marketing, including newspapers, and executive jobs using newspapers and headhunting. For casual day jobs the jury is still out, but this is something that fits online.

Peter Jackson (auto)biography

Just finished Peter Jackson’s (semi auto)-biography. It’s a remarkable journey he has made, from struggling apprentice printer to mogul. Three things struck me

The first is his overwhelming passion for movies – passion that led him to just do it, rather than learn first by going to university. The results speak volumes, and he is in good company with this approach.

The second is that he is a leader with an ability to gather large amounts of people around him – from the first movie made with a bunch of mates on weekends, to LOTR with over 24,000 kiwis involved.

And the third is that he is an astute businessman – the book only hints at this, but it is clear from the continuous improvement in his Film Commission submissions, and the improvement in the deals struck with New line and Universal.

The book, like his movies, is long, and rewarding for it. The emphasis is more on  pre-LOTR work and life, and it really focuses on the movies – no business or personal exposes here. (you won’t learn the secret of how he lost weight, but I understand he did that through healthy diet, removal of snacks at the screening room and exercise)

Worthy of a read.

Pater Jackson Book Cover


Just had a marvelous dinner with a four folk that all just happen to be into cars. Actually I was easily the least informed on the subject, and that includes the two women in the room.

Luckily these folk are car enthusiasts, and buy great cars at good prices.

So how do you get a great car at a good price? Easy – buy it used, and know what you are buying. If you don’t know how to buy smartly, then find a friend that does – they’ll be only too willing to help.

Cars these days are designed to go over 160,000 kms/100,000 miles, and  the price of a car at 100,000 kms is pretty low. Buy it, drive it for 30,000 kms, sell it online and move to the next vehicle.

My “new” WRX is 100,000 kms old, and still goes like the clappers. Meanwhile my R1200GSA motorcycle (an indefensible new purchase that was 3 times the cost of my car) is still really loosening up – at 7000 kms. These 1200GS’s don’t really get to their best until about 20,000 kms, which is when the R1200GS I had in South Africa really got going.

Which brings me to the point – why do people buy expensive cars on debt? It’s a depreciating asset, generally costs you more money (insurance, gas) the more expensive it is, and is easily substitutable by a cheaper version with just as much functionality, if not more.

Perhaps it is just better to accept that expensive cars are fashion statements, and allocate the costs to the same bucket as your wardrobe. Let’s see – a new designer suit or dress each week, or a new car this year… Which has more impact? Which feels better? Which makes you look better?

NZHerald is Stuffed

A week or so ago NZ Herald either made a change, or someone (like Telecom) made a change for them, and as a result it often loads glacially slowly. It’s so bad that it essentially renders the site unusable for some folk.
I’m not sure why, but I suspect it is because they have succumbed to video advertising, using a particularly obnoxious product that you cannot turn off.

Unless you have a mac that is – I don’t see any video on my mac, but I still get the horribly slow speeds.

It’s had an effect on traffic – look at the green line in the chart below – which shows that NZHerald.co.nz is losing page impressions versus their competition Stuff.co.nz.

It started happening at the end of October. Maybe the tech folk should have a chat to the marketing folk….

NZ Herald losing out to stuff

Source: Nielsen Netratings

Daily Show Global Edition

Here in NZ we are unable to get the Daily Show through broadcast/cable TV. We can only get the dramatically compacted “Special Edition”, which plays just once each week. Not only is most of the content missing, but it’s also very late, so timeliness, the essential element of news, is gone. And forget the Colbert Report.
The strangest thing though is the disclaimer placed before the show, one which foreign audiences in particular do not need.

We can, however, get the Daily Show legally via iTunes, illegally via torrent or snippets via youTube. Sadly iTunes is not localized, and so we cannot use it unless we possess a foreign-sourced iTunes music card. The other problem is that episodes weigh in at 250+MB each, a size that precludes me using the pathetic excuse for home “broadband” we have here..
You tube videos typically last about 1 minute before sputtering out, and torrents – well they take a while but get there eventually.

I don’t see any of the TV channels rescuing us any time soon.

Marvin Bower

These are the attributes that McKinsey’s Marvin Bower apparently had.

– Integrity/trustworthines (A)
– Fact based visioning, pragmatic approach (B)
– Adherence to principles/values (C)
– Humility & unassuming respect for others (D)
– Strong communications/personal persuasiveness (E)
– Personal involvement/demonstrated commitment (F)

My first thought is that despite her 11 years in the firm author Elisabeth Haas Edersheim was strangely unable to distill Marvin’s attributes to three items. Here’s how the firm sees it’s beliefs now – you can see Marvin’s fingerprints:

– Adhere to the highest professional standards (A,C,D)
– Improve our clients performance significantly (B,E,F)
– Create an unrivaled environment for exceptional people (D,F)
(McKinsey Beliefs)

Either way these are great attributes or beliefs to live and work by. Marvin, who died in 2003 in his hundredth year, was the founder (essentially) and conscience of McKinsey. An amazing individual, and a well written engaging book – worthy of a light read.

Motorcycling is the safest way to travel: #1

Sure you say. But it is my belief that motorcycling is the safest way to travel in foreign countries. This will take a while to explain, and there are some caveats – so I’ll take it a piece at a time.

#1: You are the driver

In many countries the roads and traffic is chaotic, and the quality of public (and private) transport drivers is incredibly variable. It isn’t easy to think about trusting your life to a Pakistani truck driver that believes Allah will guide him at night, rather than his headlights which are left off. It’s also scary to contemplate being driven down “the most dangerous road in the world” in Bolivia by someone who is paid a handful of dollars a day. A huge amount of 3rd world transportation is in relatively small vehicles (vans or Toyotas) or even via hitchhiking, and you cannot make an assessment of the driver before you jump on.

Once you are on a public transport vehicle it is very hard to get off. You may be traveling through a desolate or dangerous place, or you may not be able to get the drive to stop. Many are the stories I’ve heard of people clamoring to a driver to slow down, only to be confronted with language or cultural barriers. The worst of these cases involve death.

When you are on a motorbike you have complete control of the situation. If the conditions (weather, traffic, road surface) get wildly dangerous you can just slow down or stop. In fact if the weather looks bad you can just roll over in bed and stay another day.

But what about the other drivers I hear you ask? Aren’t they the ones you have to worry about?
On a bike you are constantly monitoring the other traffic on the road, along with the road conditions, presence of any people or animals, the approaching weather, the condition of the bike (engine, tires, fuel, chain) and your own needs (food, accomodation).  It all becomes second nature, and if there is too much information to process then you simply slow down or stop. But basically you get used to it.
Cars and trucks will appear around blind corners, will fail to stop at stop lights (I once had a car screech to a halt 3 meters in front of where I had previously been waiting at a red light. That was in the USA), will appear out of side roads, will drift into your lane and will even deliberately drive towards you.

(Actually cars deliberately drive towards you in several places – that’s just local rules of the road in action. I’ll get on to those in another post)

Aside from slowing or stopping, riders can also simply avoid the crazy drivers. Modern motorbikes are generally a lot more powerful than local vehicles, and almost always an erratic or aggressive driver can be waved goodbye with a twist of the throttle.

Failing that I always lets someone that is aggressively on my tail overtake me, and often derive macabre amusement by following the really dangerous drivers, albeit at a safe distance.

To summarize: Ride at a speed that is well within your ability to ride safely


This is my 3rd or 4th attempt at a blog. Previous versions have failed after I either lost energy because my circumstances changed, or I was unable to easily update the blog through a plethora of technical issues.

Let’s see how this goes.