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Administering noxious substances


Last night Greater Manchester Police confirmed that Mr Crompton had been arrested for administering a noxious substance.
A spokesman said: ‘On Tuesday, 2 Apr 14, police in North Manchester received a report of concern over medicine administered to a resident at a Blackley care home. Officers from the public protection investigation unit started an investigation and a multi-agency strategy meeting was held with partner agencies to discuss how to best establish the facts. Subsequently an 83-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of administering a noxious substance.’ Mr Crompton has been bailed until Apr 28.

[The Mail, Fri 11 Apr 14]

Well, the boys in blue got one thing right. Prescription medicines frequently are noxious substances which should not be administered. But a “multi-agency strategy meeting” to figure out if a man should be allowed to hand his wife her pills? Has all common sense disappeared in the welter of tick-boxes and arrest targets?

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Codejam is here again. It is a test in devising algorithms against the clock, open to all-comers world wide. It was supposedly started by Google as a way of trying to select good programmers to work for them, or at least of providing a more objective measure of candidates’ abilities than the usual interview process. For the first few years they subcontracted the process, but now they handle it in-house. The main contest is once a year. There are four rounds:

Qualification round
Round 1
Round 2
Round 3

The finals are held in a Google office, typically in a different city each time. Google pays travel expenses for the top 25 from Round 3 to attend. The other rounds are online.

The qualification round is easy. It typically lasts about 24 hours to do problems for which one would normally be allowed less than 45 mins each. This time full marks was 90 and the pass mark (for moving to Round 1) was 25. 20,595 advanced to Round 1 and another 4867 scored something (plenty more entered but either did not compete or failed to get anything right).

The top 1737 got 90
the next 2 got 84
the next 85 got 79
the next 34 got 74
the next 6 got 71
the next 572 got 66
the next 27 got 65
the next 2 got 63
the next 457 got 60
the next 6682 got 55 (including me)
the next 6 got 54
the next 33 got 50
the next 80 got 49
the next 5 got 47
the next 878 got 44
the next 2 got 43
the next 16 got 41
the next 605 got 39
the next 7 got 38
the next 681 got 36
the next 21 got 35
the next 3 got 33
the next 2 got 31
the next 73 got 30
the next 195 got 28
the next 8384 got 25
the next 3 got 22
the next 18 got 20
the next 64 got 19
the next 2 got 17
the next 1315 got 14
the next 13 got 11
the next 42 got 8
the next 3410 got 6

There are usually 3 or 4 problems. Each has a page or so of description, always precise, but often not particularly easy to follow. In most cases you are then given two datasets, a small and a large. The idea is that you write your program (in more or less any computer language), then download the small dataset, run your program on it and submit the output to be marked (the downloading, running and submission must be completed in 4 mins). You then get either nil or full marks. If you get nil, you can keep trying (each time with a different dataset).

You then do the same with the large dataset, except that this time (A) you only get one shot, (B) you get longer to submit (9 mins? I cannot remember), and (C) it is not marked until after the contest is over. For each submission you have to submit your code as well as your output. In principle, they can check your code as well as your output, although in practice that only seems to happen in the event of suspected cheating or maybe in the final.

Any correct algorithm usually works for the small dataset, but for the large dataset, the algorithm usually has to be reasonably efficient. Sometimes code which works fine for the small dataset is too slow for the large one.

Google expected the last question to be the hardest, but actually qu 3 was the hardest. I wasted 3 hours failing to solve it. Maybe I would have solved it if I had stuck at it for another hour or so (and I had another 6 hours before the deadline), but I had to go off somewhere else. The bunching on 55 suggests I was not alone.

From Round 1 onwards, there is time pressure. But Round 1 is held at three different times of day to suit those in different time zones. Moreover, Round 1A, 1B and 1C are held on different days, so anyone prepared to put up with unsocial hours effectively has three shots at getting into Round 2. They happen at weekly intervals, starting next Saturday. Last year I got through Round 1, but with depressingly low marks and did not even attempt Round 2. So this year my goal is to reach Round 3. We will see. I certainly got off to a bad start.

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WebVan Mark 2

Webvan is a strong contender for the biggest dot-com bust ever. In the increasing frenzy of the late 1990s Louis Borders persuaded the boys at Benchmark Capital that he had an even bigger hit (at that point Borders bookstores, which he had founded in 1971, were doing well). It was so exciting that due diligence would have been perverse. They went for it big time.

It had one of the world’s silliest ever dot-com ideas: delivering fresh food to customers within a 30 minute window following an online order. Don’t be too distressed if you cannot figure out why that is so dumb. The top venture capitalists couldn’t either. I have now mislaid the book (about Benchmark) where it is all spelt out in gory detail, but from memory they threw about $200M at it. They quickly got Goldmans behind the float and raised a whole lot more. To what extent Benchmark et al cashed out at that point I cannot now remember.

They did not need to hire anyone with a supermarket or groceries background, after all a cabbage is pretty much like a book, isn’t it? Of course, the business needed warehouses. A lot of warehouses. It placed a $1 billion order for fancy warehouses with a top engineering group and simply ran out of money. The remnants, an online grocery delivery service in Seattle and LA was acquired by Amazon to become “AmazonFresh”.

A dumb idea was, of course, made much worse by the money-no-object execution. Ocado has made an “operating profit” since 2011. But however you look at it, this brilliant business idea never deserved to raise $10M let alone the amounts it did. The valuations were just crazy.

So now we have Just Eat plc.


To be fair, its business model is not exactly the same. But the valuations are plumb crazy. It raised £94M (for the company) whilst the VC backers got £250M. But the company is valued at £1.4 billion. Its net assets prior to the float were about £50M and it made just under £7M on revenues of £97M. The shares were issued at 260p (see ticker JE on the London Stock Exchange) and now stand at 250p, so investors are crazy too.

It describes its business as taking online orders for takeaway food. On page 42 of the prospectus it compares itself to Domino’s Pizza. That has a market cap of £0.9M with revenues of £270M and profits of well … That is a little hard to tell. Its accounts (for calendar 2013) show profits of a little under £18M or just under 11p/share. Its price now is 532.5p, so it is on a (historic) multiple of almost 50x. It claims that its earnings would have more than doubled to 24p/share, a multiple of 22x but for “exceptional items”. Indeed 2012 earnings were 19p.

But Domino’s growth has hardly been stellar. In 2009 its revenues were £155M and its earnings 21p. With that kind of growth 22x looks way over the top too me.


although many investors disagree since its share price climbed 3.5x from ~ 200p in 2009 to ~ 700p a year ago before falling back.

So how on earth is Just Eat worth half as much again?

The company would no doubt claim that the reason is that it is an aggregator, not a provider. In principle, a monopoly forum is the ultimate dot-com business. It is rather like being Bernie Ecclestone. You do not have to do any of the grubby, expensive, messy things. The people who pay to populate your forum do those. But you take a piece of everyone’s business. The classic example is eBay. Once you get established as the auction site, everyone prefers to buy or sell on your site rather than any other, because that is where most people go.

Of course, eBay also demonstrates that it is not quite that simple. eBay got too greedy. It cut customer service to the bone and made it impossible for small customers to protest effectively about abusive behaviour by large suppliers. But it has survived that and still has a market cap of $70 billion and substantial earnings (PE 25x).

My difficulty with Just Eat is that I cannot see any way they can establish a lucrative monopoly. Takeaway food is inherently local. Strangers may want an aggregator to guide them, but locals know perfectly well the relative merits of the local suppliers. So the only question is whether it is worth the while for a local restaurant to use Just Eat rather than handle online orders itself.

If it is deeply tech-averse, it can easily hire a consultant or a third party to deal with it. It is a simple matter to redirect its (loyal) customers to another website. So I cannot see how Just Eat’s suppliers will ever get sufficiently locked-in for Just Eat to charge premium prices.

It currently charges restaurants an £850 sign-on fee and then (on average) 10.7% of orders going through its systems, plus sometimes it manages to charge customers fees for using debit/credit cards to pay online (and it waits an average of a week before passing the funds on to its restaurants) – see prospectus section 3.2 page 41. Incidentally, the prospectus pdf is bizarrely difficult to get hold of. It took me more than 20 minutes of googling to find it. I was getting close to complaining to the regulator that it was unavailable. (I suspect the company would claim that the difficulty is to avoid falling foul of SEC regulations. I have not looked closely at that issue.)

I reckon that over the next five years its margins are likely to erode faster than it gains new business. £1.4 billion (and falling fast, trades so far this morning at 240p) looks ludicrously high.

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Iran Air flight 655


It was an Airbus A300 on a flight from Tehran to Dubai shot down by USS Vincennes on 3 July 1988 using guided missiles. All 290 people on board (16 crew, 274 passengers, including 66 children) were killed.

It was a classic mix of incompetence leading to the accident, and deviousness in trying, and eventually failing, to cover up what actually happened.

At first sight the shooting was hard to believe. The flight had a stop-over at Bandar Abbas. It took off normally from there at UTC 06:47, 27 minutes late. It flew normally down the commercial air corridor Amber 59, a 20-mile wide direct route to Dubai airport. It followed the normal flight plan of climbing steadily, aiming to reach 14,000 ft, then cruise briefly, then descend to Dubai. Its transponder was broadcasting the regular civilian code (“Mode III”, easily distinguishable from the military “Mode II”). When it reached 10 miles from the Vincennes still climbing, it was shot down on the basis that it must be an Iranian F-14 descending on its final attack run.


The Vincennes was at lat 26.513056N, long 56.015833W, 10.8 miles from the nearest point of the Iranian coast (the little island of Hengam, just south of Qeshm), inside Iranian territorial waters, and was in the process of attacking small Iranian gunboats which it had lured out with a decoy “Liberian ship” the Stoval. It was neither a ship, nor Liberian, but essentially just a transmitter to fool the Iranians into coming into range of the Vincennes’ helicopters and various other US ships that were in the area.

Indeed it turned out that the US had been engaged in a secret naval war in the Gulf for some while, a war for which it did not wish to seek authorisation under the War Powers Act.

The Vincennes had all the latest kit, known as Aegis:


This was a complex computer system linked into umpteen radars, intelligence feeds and other systems, designed to allow the ship to engage up to a hundred air or surface threats simultaneously.

It performed flawlessly.

The snag was apparently that the crew did not believe the information it was giving them. They expected the plane to be a hostile Iranian plane rushing to defend the gunboats, so that is what they managed to see.

There was also a classic time-zone mix-up. The ships clocks were on UTC + 4hrs, whereas Bandar Abbas was on UTC +3.5 hrs. So although the crew knew all about the IA655, they knew it could not be the plane on the radar, because the timing was wrong.

But part of the problem was that the Vincennes had too much information. All kinds of people were intercepting, real-time, the communications between IA655 and the Bandar Abbas control tower: GCHQ and NSA (with listening stations in Oman, including Goat Island), an AWACS plane (a Grumman E2-Hawkeye) above the Gulf.


[Goat island, Oman. All maps courtesy of Google Maps]

All this information may not have been much help to the captain of the Vincennes faced with only a few minutes to make a decision as the plane closed on his position at about 6.5 miles/minute. Having said that, I am not inclined to be particularly sympathetic. There was precisely one scheduled flight out of Bandar Abbas that morning, IR 655, due to depart at 09:50 local time = 06:20 UTC. It was flying direct to Dubai, which would take it directly over the Vincennes. Clearly, avoiding downing that flight was a priority.

But the information was certainly a problem afterwards. Aegis provided a flawless audit trail. It showed that the crew had imagined things when they thought the flight was descending. It did nothing but ascend. There followed a lengthy period of giving out a mixture of flat untruths and heavily redacted truths, but the truth did emerge several years later.

Full details, and amusingly commented original documents etc, are available on Charles Harwood’s site.

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Barrack-room lawyer

Maria Miller

It is several decades since I used the phrase in the title, so I checked the spelling at the online OED:


and realized with amusement that it arguably did not quite fit.

Miller has just escaped, implausibly. Faced with this report from the Parliamentary Commissioner, most ministers would have resigned:

Were Mrs Miller’s ACA claims made in accordance with the rules and guidance of the
relevant period?

141. I have considered Mrs Miller’s concerns about my investigation of her claims for interest on her mortgage very carefully and believe that these claims are an intrinsic part of the complaint put to me by Mr Mann and that my interpretation is consistent with the rules set out in the Green Books of 2005 and 2006 …
[These estimates] suggest[s] that if Mrs Miller had claimed the interest on a loan of this size, she would have been able to claim around £38,000 instead of the £70,314 she actually claimed from 2005–06 to 2009–10. On this basis, over the period covered by the complaint, Mrs Miller claimed around £32,000 in interest payments to which she was not entitled. (In view of the time which has elapsed since these costs were incurred, and the information available, it would not be realistic to attempt calculations in more precise terms.) If these figures are accepted, Mrs Miller’s costs then fall below the ACA ceiling and abatement in respect of her parents’ living costs becomes an issue … Mrs Miller could properly have claimed just over £27,000 for mortgage interest, and just over £6,000 for council tax: a total of £33,500 under these two headings, as opposed to the £77,666 which she did claim …
Her apparent misuse of the allowances system continued for four years from May 2005 to the end of April 2009 and seems to have been brought to an end only by the expenses scandal of 2009-10 when she abruptly ceased to claim.

Aided no doubt by her solicitor husband, she hired a QC and spent spent more than a year fighting the Commissioner, claiming that the enquiry was improperly carried out, ultra vires etc.

Eventually, she got in front of the Commons Standards Committee and continued the attack. Few people are likely to read the hundred page report of the Committee (which includes the Commissioner’s report and her defence document), but I found her defence startling. It reads like a parody of a QC on a bad day struggling with a no-hope case.

But I was wrong. The Committee adopted the interesting approach of criticizing her belligerent attitude, but letting her off on the substantive issue. Its reasoning on the latter point was essentially that she would not have had the opportunity to make as lavish a claim as many other MPs if she had been obliged to stick to the rules. Had the relevant Committee thought harder about how to line MPs pockets, it would have devised them in a way that would have allowed her claim (para 39 p18).

She was however obliged to apologise to the House for being belligerent. With what grace she immediately did so you can see (this is her full statement):

I wish to make a personal statement in relation to today’s report. The report resulted from an allegation by the Member for Bassetlaw The Committee has dismissed his allegation. The Committee has recommended that I apologise to the House for my attitude to the Commissioner’s enquiries, and I do, of course, unreservedly apologise. I fully accept the recommendations of the Committee and thank them for bringing this matter to an end.

So nearly five years on, MPs are evidently no longer on the back foot. How long before they vote themselves a substantial increase in pay and rations to bring them up to levels more commensurate with the magnificent and important work they do for us all?

[Written on Friday, but I did not have time to put it up until midday today. Not much seems to have changed, despite the weekend press pushing hard for her to go.]

Added Tue 8 Apr 2014 at 1:40pm

I have just been listening to Richard Ottaway, a senior Tory backbencher, commenting on the Maria Miller case on the World at One radio programme. He claimed that Kathryn Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, had admitted in a recent joint statement with the Commons Committee on Standards that she had been wrong in assessing the amount that Maria Miller should repay as £40k.

That is simply not true. The joint statement (made on 4 April) is here. The relevant text is:

The Commissioner’s finding that Mrs Miller was only entitled to claim for the initial purchase costs of the property as it had been in 1996 was based on the reading of the rules as they were in 2005. The Committee’s report sets out why it rejected Mrs Miller’s claims that the Commissioner had misread the rules, but nonetheless considered that the “strict interpretation of the rules as they stood in 2005” was, to use the Commissioner’s description of the rule change, “too harsh”. The Committee noted the rule was directed at sitting MPs, not at decisions made long before someone entered parliament. No thought had been given to the reasonableness of a rule which would retrospectively bite on decisions made before someone was elected, or even before they had contemplated standing for election.

Indeed the Committee endorsed Hudson’s reading of the rules. It just thought it was unfair. My wording above was carefully chosen:

Its reasoning … was essentially that she would not have had the opportunity to make as lavish a claim as many other MPs if she had been obliged to stick to the rules.

This all goes back to the basic concept of MPs’ “allowances”. They were deliberately lavish, in the sense that they went far beyond what most voters could hope to receive in their employment, precisely as a backdoor way of increasing MPs’ salaries. MPs knew voters would be outraged by a major pay increase, so they decided on a fudge. They would pay themselves more, whilst claiming that they were merely reimbursing themselves for genuine and unavoidable costs. Part of the charm of the system was that there was plenty of complexity to allow endless red herring and straw man defences when the system was attacked. Unfortunately for them, some MPs benefitted more than others from this wheeze. So naturally the Committee felt that poor hard-done-by Maria should not be criticised for breaking the rules.

Added Wed 9 Apr 2014

Cameron has finally come to his senses after endless pressure from back-benchers and live interviews with Tory voters in the streets of Basingstoke explaining why they will not be voting Tory next time. She “resigned” this morning.

There was quite a good rant by Richard Littlejohn in today’s Mail. After noting that she bought the house for £234k, then increased the mortgage by £191k, then by a further £150k immediately after becoming an MP, and that it was highly unlikely this was spent on improvements, he went on:

After she was elected, she immediately took out an extra £150,000 on her mortgage and claimed the entire interest on her parliamentary expenses by pretending that the Wimbledon house was her ‘second’ home. How many jobs do you know which give you an instant six-figure, interest-free loan, on top of your salary? Miller obviously saw the money as some kind of signing-on fee. Why did she need that £150,000? Out in the real world, that’s a shed-load of money, more than most people can dream about.

Added Thu 10 Apr 2014

There was one other development which I missed yesterday:


[from Michael Fabricant's twitter feed]

Fabricant is a Tory MP and party vice-chairman. He has been regarded as a loose cannon for some time, but it is widely rumoured (eg in today’s Mail) that the middle sentence in the middle entry above was the last straw for No. 10. So a little later we got:


He so he was sacked shortly after the twitter post and claims it was cause and effect. The llama in-joke was that when asked about his sexuality he replied that he had a relationship with a llama but did not wish to comment on whether it was male or female.

I can see that Cameron would not relish being forced to back down and sack Miller – oops, sorry, accept her resignation – but savaging a loyal, if colourful, supporter seems oddly at variance with his claims that he acted slowly on Miller because of his need to act fairly.

My impression is that: (1) he failed to read the Standards Committee report (or did read it and deliberately misrepresented what it said); (2) he wanted to keep Miller because he was short of women in Cabinet, and more generally low on people with her background; (3) he failed to grasp quickly enough the political damage.

Of course, it is easy to comment from the sidelines. Politics is full of bear-traps. Issues can blow up suddenly and be tricky to handle correctly.

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