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Sunday, 21 May 2017 - 9:05pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 21/05/2017 - 9:05pm in

This fortnight, I have been mostly not reading, exceptions follow:

  • ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT — Ed, of Gin and Tacos fame: This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who *didn't even die* for pete's sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order. Now we get a new video every week – sometimes every few days – to the point that the name of the person on the receiving end is forgotten almost immediately. There are too many "Video of black guy being shot or beaten" videos for even interested parties to keep them all straight.
  • Do we want house prices up or down? — Richard Denniss in the AFR: Most politicians are adamant that they want petrol, fresh food and health insurance to be less expensive. We talk about the price of petrol and the price of milk. We don't talk about "petrol affordability" or "bread affordability" let alone create an index of the price of bread divided by median household income. Talking endlessly about "housing affordability" allows politicians to duck the simple question of whether house prices are "too high", "too low" or "just right".

Sunday, 7 May 2017 - 5:51pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 07/05/2017 - 5:51pm in

This fortnight, I have been mostly reading:

  • An economy without growth is far from our biggest worry — Ross Gittins for Fairfax: Most economists I know never doubt that a growing economy is what keeps us happy and, should the economy stop growing, it would make us all inconsolable. They can't prove that, of course, but they're as convinced of it as anyone else selling something.
  • Minimum Alcohol Pricing: The Middle Class Sneer at the Unworthy Under-Privileged (Again) — Craig Murray: I cannot find words to express for you my depth of contempt for a measure which – by design – only affects the price of drinks drunk overwhelmingly by the lower socio-economic classes and – horror of horrors – the young! I drank a great deal more at university than I do now, and I consider the pleasures of that time a great boon to my life.
  • The Deep History Behind Trump’s Rise — George Monbiot: Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal think tankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want.
  • How the village feast paved the way to empires and economics — Brian Hayden, Aeon: Feasts are often very expensive events, sometimes requiring up to 10 years of work and saving. Those who are paying for them expect to obtain some benefit from all their efforts and expenditures. And this is the important part about traditional feasts: those who are invited, and who often receive gifts, are considered obligated to reciprocate the invitation and gifts within a reasonable amount of time. By accepting invitations to feasts, individuals enter into relationships of alliance with the host. Each of them supports the other in political or social conflicts as well as in economic matters. Such support is critical because social and political conflicts are rife in tribal villages, with many accusations of infidelity, theft, sorcery, inheritance irregularities, unpaid bills, ritual transgressions and crop damage from other people’s domestic animals. In order to defend oneself from such accusations and threats of punishment, individuals need strong allies within the community. Feasts are a way to get them.
  • Keynes and Brexit — Robert Skidelsky: [Keynes] would certainly have wanted to keep Britain out of the eurozone. Because, above all, he would have wanted to retain the commitment to full employment. If this was not possible at the European level, and he would have doubted if there was enough theoretical and institutional support for this, then national policy must be free to secure it.
  • It’s the Private Debt, Stupid! — T. Sabri Öncü, Prime Economics Blog: At $152 trillion or 225% of the world gross domestic product, the global debt of the non-financial sector has reached an all-time high in 2015 and two-thirds of this debt, amounting to about $100 trillion, consists of liabilities of the private sector, as the IMF indicated. As I mentioned in my July 2016 EPW article (Öncü 2016), since the Deng–Volcker–Thatcher– Reagan Revolution of 1978–80, the economies polarised between creditors and debtors, the debt burden shifted from the public sector to the private sector through austerity programmes and much of this accumulated private sector debt in almost everywhere around the globe is currently unpayable. […] A global Jubilee is in order.
  • Mandatory De-education Classes — Scarfolk Council:
  • Reinventing work for the future — Frances Coppola: When income is uncertain, but outgoings are certain, constant worry about where the money will come from to pay the bills eats away at the mind, destroying creativity and turning the intellect to porridge. It undermines relationships and erodes happiness. Ultimately, it wrecks physical and mental health. And yet we seem intent upon increasing income insecurity in the name of "efficiency". […] By implementing a universal basic income, we can end the necessity of human drudgery and the wasteful mismatching of people to jobs. We can restore security to the millions who live with uncertainty.

Sunday, 23 April 2017 - 6:56pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 23/04/2017 - 6:56pm in

For I-don't-know-how-many weeks, I have been mostly reading:

  • Everyone loves Bernie Sanders. Except, it seems, the Democratic party — Trevor Timm in the Guardian: If you look at the numbers, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America – and it’s not even close. Yet bizarrely, the Democratic party – out of power across the country and increasingly irrelevant – still refuses to embrace him and his message. It’s increasingly clear they do so at their own peril.
  • Who's to blame for rising house prices? We are, actually — Peter Martin: In September 1999 the government halved the headline rate of capital gains tax, making negative gearing suddenly an essential tax strategy. […] The invasion of negative gearers has been followed by an invasion of foreign buyers, who push aside would-be owner-occupiers in exactly the same way. Rather than living in the homes they've bought, they treat them as investments and either leave them empty or rent them out to tenants who would have once had a chance of owning them. The 2011 census found an extraordinary 12 per cent more dwellings than households, some of them not bought to live in, others bought as holiday homes and second homes.
  • Cookies — Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:
  • The case for basic income — Chris Dillow: How can we protect workers who lack bargaining power whilst at the same time not stifling new businesses and flexible forms of work? This is where the citizens’ income enters. In giving people an outside income, it empowers them to reject bad jobs. But it also gives them the flexibility to work a few hours as they please. We thus get the best of the gig economy – proper entrepreneurship and flexibility – without the worst: egregious exploitation.
  • The Conversation About Basic Income is a Mess. Here’s How to Make Sense of It. — Charlie Young in Evonomics: UBI is in fact not a single proposal. It’s a field of proposals that’s perhaps better thought of as a philosophical intervention, a new conception of macro-economic and political structure. It’s unusual to argue wholeheartedly against representative government, taxation or universal suffrage, while it is common to disagree on which party should govern, whether taxes should be raised or cut, and particular elements of voting procedure. In the same way, we shouldn’t argue all-out for or against UBI but instead inspect the make-up of each approach to it – that’s where we can find not only meaningful debate, but also possibilities for working out what we might actually want.
  • The Great Divide - The new fat cats in Australia’s universities — Richard Hil and Kristen Lyons at the Ngara Institute: While the lower orders scratch around in precarious employment for what in many instances amounts to a subsistence wage, the privileges enjoyed by many senior managers border on the obscene. It is not unusual to hear of vice chancellors flying first class around the world and staying in high-end hotels, while at home benefiting from subsidised housing and generous superannuation and performance bonuses. Casual employees, on the other hand, are usually denied access to holiday and sick pay, career pathways and, more often than not, an office.
  • The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Issue a Press Release — Audrey Watters: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” computer scientist Alan Kay once famously said. I’d wager that the easiest way is just to make stuff up and issue a press release. I mean, really. You don’t even need the pretense of a methodology. Nobody is going to remember what you predicted. Nobody is going to remember if your prediction was right or wrong. Nobody – certainly not the technology press, which is often painfully unaware of any history, near-term or long ago – is going to call you to task.
  • Trump to America: "Giraffes Are Jerks!" — Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling at Boing Boing:

Wednesday, 19 April 2017 - 8:32pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 19/04/2017 - 8:37pm in

I'm prepared to suspend judgment over this bit of landscape gardening until it's done, but calling it "momentous" and a "corner of paradise" does seem to be overstating the scope of the project. Granted, the Key Stakeholders who say "Ni!" did threaten to say "Ni!" to us again unless we brought them a shrubbery, but I'm sure that once it's done we'll resume going about our business as though it never happened.

Unless they decide they want another shrubbery…

Friday, 7 April 2017 - 6:18pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 07/04/2017 - 6:19pm in

What the…? I'm sorry, I didn't realise that we adjusted the clock by an hour and a century when daylight saving ended.

Roll up ladies! It's not a beauty contest, and certainly not an intelligence test! If you think for a moment that we would besmirch and demean the venerable title of "showgirl" in such a way, you are sorely mistaken. Rather if you can, in an emancipated and empowered way, sport a lovely frock, and giggle and simper with poise, a bright future awaits you.

Imagine spending years hanging onto the arm of some bloke in a sharp suit, childbearing, and finally a lucrative divorce settlement; all this can be yours! But hurry, because frankly you're not getting any younger and - this being Coffs Harbour - do you really want to be serving coffee or scanning barcodes for the rest of your life?

Sunday, 19 March 2017 - 6:48pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 19/03/2017 - 6:48pm in

This week, and last week, I have been mostly reading:

  • The Old Debt And Entitlement Charade — Dean Baker in the Huffington Post: Why is it, that Social Security and Medicare are linked to debt? These are not the only programs that entail future commitments of resources. […] Many of the government’s largest commitments of future resources do not even appear in the budget. When the government grants a patent or copyright monopoly, it is allowing the holder to effectively tax the public for decades into the future. This is a fact that is little understood because the folks who constantly scold us about the deficit never point it out.
  • Wikipedia is already the world’s ‘Dr Google’ – it’s time for doctors and researchers to make it better — Thomas Shafee in the Conversation makes my day with an article that isn't "Hey, Wikipedia isn't perfect; let's reinvent the wheel!": Health professionals have a duty to improve the accuracy of medical entries in Wikipedia, according to a letter published today in Lancet Global Health, because it’s the first port of call for people all over the world seeking medical information. In our correspondence, a group of international colleagues and I call on medical journals to do more to help experts make Wikipedia more accurate, and for the medical community to make improving its content a top priority.
  • In a highly indebted world, austerity is a permanent state of affairs — Mark Blyth in Aeon: If the country whose debt you hold can have elections, and the public dares to vote against more budget cuts, the European Central Bank will shut down their banking system to make them revisit their choices. That’s what they did to Greece in the summer of 2015. In this world, our present world, creditors will get paid and debtors will get squeezed. Budgets will be cut to make sure that bondholders get their money. And, in a highly indebted world, austerity – introduced as an ‘emergency’ measure to save the economy, to right the fiscal ship – becomes a permanent state of affairs.
  • Meet the Companies Literally Dropping ‘Irish’ Pubs in Cities Across the World — Siobhán Brett in Eater appeals to the Plastic Paddy in me: In the late 1970s, Dublin architecture student Mel McNally and some classmates were tasked with analyzing a piece of local architecture. They decided to make their subject the city’s pubs. A dim view was taken of their proposal, but in the end, the project was such a success that it became a months-long public exhibition. Much of the work went missing in the final days, as McNally tells it, so emotive and sought-after were the drawings and renderings. McNally went on to research the whole of Ireland to establish a definitive playbook of pub varieties, which led to the foundation of a design and manufacturing specialist, the Irish Pub Company [IPC], in 1990. The ambition was to design and build complete interiors of pubs, first domestically, but then for foreign markets, assembling huge shipments of flooring, decorative glass, mirrors, ceiling tiles, light fixtures, furniture, signage, and bric-a-brac, as well as the obvious centerpiece: the bar itself.

Sunday, 5 March 2017 - 11:31am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 05/03/2017 - 11:31am in

This week, the academic term has properly started, and I have been only reading:

  • In Defense of the Lecture — Miya Tokumitsu at Jacobin: The best lectures draw on careful preparation as well as spontaneous revelation. While speaking to students and gauging their reactions, lecturers come to new conclusions, incorporate them into the lecture, and refine their argument. Lectures impart facts, but they also model argumentation, all the while responding to their audience’s nonverbal cues. Far from being one-sided, lectures are a social occasion.
  • There Is Such a Thing As Society — George Monbiot: It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.
  • Spider Paleontology — xkcd: Spider Paleontology

Thursday, 2 March 2017 - 11:57pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 03/03/2017 - 12:01am in

A PROFESSOR stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him.

When the class began, he picked up a large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

Really bad analogy for Coffs Harbour. The local university campus doesn't do courses in philosophy, or history, or even arts. You can do a degree in hotel management, but you won't see any professors. All the academic staff are casuals.

We are well off as far as golf courses, pebbles, and sand are concerned, so keep working on it. If you can come up with some other scenario where people in Coffs Harbour regularly engage in abstract thought, I think you'll be onto a winner.

Think Vladimir and Estragon sitting in the gutter in a shopping mall carpark:

"Sand, eh?"

"Sand? F* off! Pebbles, eh?"

"F*ing pebbles! Golf balls, eh? Eh, golf balls, eh?"

"Yeah bro. Golf balls, eh."

See? Tailor the message to the audience and you increase the impact while losing nothing of the nuance. Hope that's been helpful.

Never Mind the Privacy: The Great Web 2.0 Swindle

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 1:43pm in

The sermon today comes from this six minute video from comedian Adam Conover: The Terrifying Cost of "Free” Websites

I don't go along with the implication here that the only conceivable reason to run a website is to directly make money by doing so, and that therefore it is our expectation of zero cost web services that is the fundamental problem. But from a technical point of view the sketch's analogy holds up pretty well. Data-mining commercially useful information about users is the business model of Software as a Service (SaaS) — or Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS) as it's alternately known.

You as the user of these services — for example social networking services such as Facebook or Twitter, content delivery services such as YouTube or Flickr, and so on — provide the "content", and the service provider provides data storage and processing functionality. There are two problems with this arrangement:

  1. You are effectively doing your computing using a computer and software you don't control, and whose workings are completely opaque to you.
  2. As is anybody who wants to access anything you make available using those services.

Even people who don't have user accounts with these services can be tracked, because they can be identified via browser fingerprinting, and you can be tracked as you browse beyond the tracking organisation's website. Third party JavaScript "widgets" embedded in many, if not most, websites silently deliver executable code to users' browsers, allowing them to be tracked as they go from site to site. Common examples of such widgets include syndicated advertising, like buttons, social login services (eg. Facebook login), and comment hosting services. Less transparent are third-party services marketed to the site owner, such as Web analytics. These provide data on a site's users in the form of graphs and charts so beloved by middle management, with the service provider of course hanging on to a copy of all the data for their own purposes. My university invites no less than three organisations to surveil its students in this way (New Relic, Crazy Egg, and of course Google Analytics). Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that government intelligence agencies are secondary beneficiaries of this data collection in the case of companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. For companies not named in these leaks, all we can say is we do not — because as users we cannot — know if they are passing on information about us as well. To understand how things might be different, one must look at the original vision for the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The Web was a victim of its own early success. The Internet was designed to be "peer-to-peer", with every connected computer considered equal, and the network which connected them completely oblivious to the nature of the data it was handling. You requested data from somebody else on the network, and your computer then manipulated and transformed that data in useful ways. It was a "World of Ends"; the network was dumb, and the machines at each end of a data transfer were smart. Unfortunately the Web took off when easy to use Web browsers were available, but before easy to use Web servers were available. Moreover, Web browsers were initially intended to be tools to both read and write Web documents, but the second goal soon fell away. You could easily consume data from elsewhere, but not easily produce and make it available yourself.

The Web soon succumbed to the client-server model, familiar from corporate computer networks — the bread and butter of tech firms like IBM and Microsoft. Servers occupy a privileged position in this model. The value is assumed to be at the centre of the network, while at the ends are mere consumers. This translates into social and economic privilege for the operators of servers, and a role for users shaped by the requirements of service providers. This was, breathless media commentary aside, the substance of the "Web 2.0" transformation.

Consider how the ideal Facebook user engages with their Facebook friends. They share an amusing video clip. They upload photos of themselves and others, while in the process providing the machine learning algorithm of Facebook's facial recognition surveillance system with useful feedback. They talk about where they've been and what they've bought. They like and they LOL. What do you do with a news story that provokes outrage, say the construction of a new concentration camp for refugees from the endless war on terror? Do you click the like button? The system is optimised, on the users' side, for face-work, and de-optimised for intellectual or political substance. On the provider's side it is optimised for exposing social relationships and consumer preferences; anything else is noise to be minimised.

In 2014 there was a minor scandal when it was revealed that Facebook allowed a team of researchers to tamper with Facebook's news feed algorithm in order to measure the effects of different kinds of news stories on users' subsequent posts. The scandal missed the big story: Facebook has a news feed algorithm.  Friending somebody on Facebook doesn't mean you will see everything they post in your news feed, only those posts that Facebook's algorithm selects for you, along with posts that you never asked to see. Facebook, in its regular day-to-day operation, is one vast, ongoing, uncontrolled experiment in behaviour modification. Did Facebook swing the 2016 US election for Trump? Possibly, but that wasn't their intention. The fracturing of Facebook's user base into insular cantons of groupthink, increasingly divorced from reality, is a predictable side-effect of a system which regulates user interactions based on tribal affiliations and shared consumer tastes, while marginalising information which might threaten users' ontological security.

Resistance to centralised, unaccountable, proprietary, user-subjugating systems can be fought on two fronts: minimising current harms; and migrating back to an environment where the intelligence of the network is at the ends, under the user's control. You can opt out of pervasive surveillance with browser add-ons like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger. You can run your own instances of software which provide federated, decentralised services equivalent to the problematic ones, such as:

  • GNU Social is a social networking service similar to Twitter (but with more features). I run my own instance and use it every day to keep in touch with people who also run their own, or have accounts on an instance run by people they trust.
  • Diaspora is another distributed social networking platform more similar to Facebook.
  • OpenID is a standard for distributed authentication, replacing social login services from Facebook, Google, et al.
  • Piwik is a replacement for systems like Google Analytics. You can use it to gather statistics on the use of your own website(s), but it grants nobody the privacy-infringing capability to follow users as they browse around a large number of sites.

The fatal flaw in such software is that few people have the technical ability to set up a web server and install it. That problem is the motivation behind the FreedomBox project. Here's a two and a half minute news story on the launch of the project: Eben Moglen discusses the freedom box on CBS news

I also recommend this half-hour interview, pre-dating the Snowden leaks by a year, which covers much of the above with more conviction and panache than I can manage: Eben Moglen on Facebook, Google and Government Surveillance

Arguably the stakes are currently as high in many countries in the West as they were in the Arab Spring. Snowden has shown that for governments of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance there's no longer a requirement for painstaking spying and infiltration of activist groups in order to identify your key political opponents; it's just a database query. One can without too much difficulty imagine a Western despot taking to Twitter to blurt something like the following:

"Protesters love me. Some, unfortunately, are causing problems. Huge problems. Bad. :("

"Some leaders have used tough measures in the past. To keep our country safe, I'm willing to do much worse."

"We have some beautiful people looking into it. We're looking into a lot of things."

"Our country will be so safe, you won't believe it. ;)"

Sunday, 26 February 2017 - 4:18pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 26/02/2017 - 4:18pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • Why debt really matters, which the IMF failed to say — Richard Murphy: […] the report only looked at who owes the debt. It did not look at who owns the debt, where and how accountable they are for it. This issue is real: it is the concentration in the ownership of debt, partly offshore, that causes so many problems, because debt imposes power. It is not for nothing that the word mortgage means ‘grip of death’. This is a modern form of slavery that consigns many to lives of little choice where compliance with the requirement of unreasonable employers is guaranteed. So it is not debt per se that is the problem: it is the power relationships implicit in it that matter and the IMF needed to address that issue and did not as far as I can see.
  • Two Loaves — J.D. Alt at New Economic Perspectives: In aggregate, then, the money system we’ve established and operate so efficiently only creates money, as it’s needed, to cover the profits of profit-seeking ventures. No money is created for ventures which do not make profits. This dynamic is doubled down on by the fact that we also operate with the institutional insistence that the sovereign government, if it decides to undertake something for the collective good, must pay for for that collective good with “tax dollars”―which are dollars previously created in the profit-earning system. There are two things peculiar about this. First is the implied premise that profit-seeking ventures are inherently good, while not-for-profit ventures are merely optional “niceties” that we can pay for on the side, so to speak. The second is our insistent belief that the money system we have cannot rationally be managed in any other way.
  • Sorting Out the Patent Trolls — Timothy Taylor: Basically, the FTC argues that the "patent assertion entities" can be divided fairly neatly into two "two distinct PAE business models: Portfolio PAEs and Litigation PAEs." The FTC steers away from using the term "patent trolls," which in this report mainly comes up in quotations from other articles buried in the footnotes. But "litigation PAEs" is the category that most people are thinking of when they refer to "patent trolls."
  • The Death of the Autodidact: And the unstoppable rise of the modern meritocrat — Ravi Mangla in the Baffler: The surgeon holding a sharp instrument inches from your arterial wall and the pilot jumping a hunk of metal over roiling waters have a license—a talisman that helps us sleep better at night. But so does your barber and your neighbor’s interior designer and—in Louisiana—your florist. In the majority of cases these requirements are another form of rent-seeking, a way for more established professionals to keep outsiders and upstarts from encroaching on their territory.
  • Metabolism — xkcd:
    Metabolism

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