Monday, November 30, 2009

Bankrupt ideas

The Kiwi dollar dropped slightly last week, and not a minute before time. It seems the financial world is finally starting to notice that our dollar is underpinned by an economy slightly smaller than Kansas, and our high interest rate is not a product of self-confidence, but a bloody liability.

Last week Don Brash, the charisma-less banker turned National politician who in 2005 led his party into its third successive election defeat, released the fruits of the deliberations of a "taskforce" he has chaired on how to catch up with Australia.

(Excuse me: "catch up with Australia"? Why would we want to do that? Given that we have a common labour market, when Kiwis envy the Oz way of life, there's nothing to stop them from moving there. And vice versa. Take away the difference between the countries, and that choice would be meaningless. Seriously, does Kansas spend its time producing reports on how it could "catch up" with, say, Illinois?)

But anyway. It's an article of faith for Mr Brash that the one thing we all want is more money in our pockets, and we will do or support anything to further that goal.

And his prescription for achieving it is all too depressingly familiar.

First, he says, we need to cut the top tax rate. Yeah, like every right-wing politician since Attilla the Hun has promised, just before they funnelled all the cash that should be going to the exchequer into their own pockets. Speaking as a top-rate taxpayer, personally I think it should be higher. 39% is not particularly rapacious by international standards. (It's lower than Australia, for one...)

Second, he wants congestion charging to pay for new roads. As a way of improving the budget, congestion charging remains one of the dumbest ideas ever. Petrol tax is cheap to collect, hard to evade, creates a broader tax base, and encourages exactly what we want to encourage (less pollution). The only downside is that it doesn't create the same scope for outright corruption and government patronage of private contractors...

Third, and my personal favourite, "to remove the temptation for future politicians to use the superannuation fund for political purposes", we should just do it now. Steal the whole bloody thing and use it to reduce taxes, i.e. to increase the amount of money going straight into Mr Brash's own pockets.

Memo to Don Brash: This is why you lost. Most Kiwis don't want their country to be a tax haven for obscenely rich Australians. They'd prefer not to see people, even strangers, starving in the streets. If that means we live slower and have less fancy toys than Australia, that's fine.

And if you don't like it, move to Oz. We won't miss you.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trust me, I'm a blogger

Apparently, the pope doesn't approve of the Twilight series of books and movies. The Vatican feels it's morally unhealthy for millions of teenage girls to be lusting after soulless monsters.

The only person I know who's seen the latest movie agrees that His Holiness has a point. Vampires have always had erotic undertones, from Dracula to Buffy, but at least they had the decency to remain undertones and subplots in an Epic Tale of Heroic Resistance to Ancient Supernatural Evil. Whereas Twilight, from what I hear, has abandoned most everything but the sex.

Of course, vanishingly few teenage girls are likely to care what some decrepit crossdresser thinks of their favourite soft-porn fix. The pope still carries some influence, but not as much as he'd probably like. Which brings me to today's ramble.

There was a report on Slashdot the other day of a survey that said that more than one-third of employees surveyed (in Canary Wharf and Wall Street) would sell confidential customer data, if the price was right. Of course the penalties for that sort of thing are pretty stiff, and it's unlikely they'd ever be offered enough to offset those. But it's still preying on my mind.

It seems to me that there's been a sharp drop in trust. And with trust goes loyalty.

It's not so much that, once, we would have "trusted" bankers to be honest. Really we had no choice. Bankers - like butchers, bakers, priests, auto mechanics, lawyers, computer programmers, farmers, manufacturers of everything from airliners to zip fasteners - most everyone, in fact - did their work, or at least the important bits of it, behind firmly closed, opaque and soundproof doors. Even journalists, those apostles of openness and transparency, kept their own work to themselves.

Now all that has changed.

Take itemised billing. We got into the habit of checking our bills. And occasionally there would be a mistake - not often, but it seemed often enough to make it worth the trouble. Banks and credit cards led the way, followed by phone companies, shops, restaurants, professional services, hotels... slowly but surely, we reached the point where nobody just says "That'll be four hundred and seventeen dollars thirty-two, please" any more. We get itemised bills... and we're expected, nay, actively encouraged to check them.

The Internet has spread this 'doublecheck' attitude to all walks of life. Now you're considered a chump if you believe a news report, without cross-checking. You're supposed to check prices before shopping for anything that costs more than groceries. Check reviews of consumer goods, movies, hotels. Follow every link. What we get then is a barrel of conflicting reports. And none of them is authoritative, because what we've done now is to reject the very idea of authority. We don't trust anyone to tell us "the truth".

All of which is just the way we thought we wanted it. We're all economically rational beings in pursuit of the perfect information that will enable us to make the optimum decisions about how to use our resources. We're all smart enough to make our own decisions - aren't we?

But now we don't expect the truth, most people have given up even the pretence. Politicians and corporations openly talk about "spinning". Journalists increasingly disclaim responsibility for the truth of what they say. With the notable exception of FOX News, most media make some effort or pretence to tell "the truth" - but the best they ever manage, the best they can ever manage, is what we've learned to call "spin": a single view of "the truth", which may make perfect sense within itself, yet still look entirely different when seen from a different angle.

And so the "perfect information" that, economic theory says, we need to make our decisions, is more elusive than ever. The people qualified to make decisions are the ones who not only have, but also understand, all this information. Authority figures. The very people whose advice we no longer trust.

Even this could work, in theory. Instead of letting the professionals get on with their work, we watch them with the intensity of a child watching an ice-cream cone being filled. Unfortunately, also like the child, we have only a very superficial understanding of what the cone is being filled with. This doesn't matter to the child, because she trusts the ice-cream vendor...

What really screws us up is, as always, human nature. When someone says to you "I don't trust you, I'll be watching your every move", what's your natural reaction? Do you think of the person as a friend, one of us, someone you want to help? Or is there a part of you that starts to think: how much can I get away with, can they really tell what I'm doing anyway, damn' know-it-all prodnose...

When you treat someone as your enemy, over time, they'll start to think of themselves that way.

And yet it seems that, increasingly, that's the expectation for how we should treat one another. Employers monitor their employees' activities; and worse, that's increasingly seen as "reasonable". School-age children are told to include references and citations in their work - an undreamt-of requirement in my day, until I reached university. Parents are supposed to monitor their kids, not just outdoors, but increasingly in school, on the bus, on the Internet, you name it. In the UK now, you need to be registered on a central database if you want to work anywhere near children. In the USA, I'm told, you need to show photo ID to enter a government building.

I was listening to a BBC podcast recently, which talked about the policing of political demonstrations. Protesters complained about the practice of "kettling" - corralling people in a limited area and not letting them leave for a certain time - a practice that, not infrequently, scoops up and seriously inconveniences innocent passers-by. Then there's the practice of police systematically photographing demonstrators (try to photograph a cop, on the other hand, and you stand a good chance of being arrested on the spot).

The police superintendent wheeled out to defend the Met talked about the "small minority" of "troublemakers", whom, apparently, the police can't distinguish from the eternal "law-abiding majority". And so, he concluded, the fuzz have no choice but to treat everyone as a potential terrorist.

That officer, I thought, was missing the point in the same way I've been talking about here. By casting "police" as "us" and "protesters" as "them", the police have made their job a hundred times harder. Police are supposed to see all law-abiding people as "us"; only criminals are "them". If they didn't treat every protester as a criminal - an enemy - then maybe the protesters themselves would be more inclined to help the cops do their job.

Mistrust leads to resentment. Resentment leads to hostility. Hostility leads to enmity. The pursuit of economic rationality has led us into a deeply dysfunctional world, one in which everyone really is our enemy.

Somehow, we need to rebuild trust.

A good starting point might be to rethink what we mean by "trust".

If someone lies to us, and we know they're lying to us, does that mean we shouldn't trust them?
"What are you thinking about?"

"Oh, nothing."
There are times we choose to accept the lie, knowning full well what it is, because we trust the liar.

Catholics are familiar with this concept. They've long since accepted that the fairy-tales told in the Bible are not "true" in the strict sense of being literal descriptions of actual events as they happened. But that doesn't matter. What actually happened to a bunch of ancient Jews is not important to us, now, today: what matters is how we live our lives and bear ourselves to God, and the stories in the Bible (they believe) are the best guide to how we should do that. "Truth" is immaterial - only "faith" matters. That's what our sceptical age has forgotten.

Friday, November 20, 2009

And ye shall hear of protests, and rumours of protests...

This Saturday sees the "March for Democracy" in Queen Street.

New Zealand has a functioning democracy. It's just been rated the least corrupt country in the world, nudging Denmark into second place. But mere democracy will never be enough for some people. The MfD, while denying that it's a single-issue pressure group, is basically concerned with repealing the "anti-smacking" law.

If only they had the honesty to admit that, I'd have no problem with them. But instead they have to make it an issue of "democracy". Seriously, grow up already.

Unfortunately, I'll be disturbingly close to the MfD idiots tomorrow. We're off to Waiheke to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and that means getting a lot closer to Queen Street than I'd like, when those unsavoury types are loose. If anyone takes me for a marcher, I'll be really very upset indeed...

In disturbingly related news, I read today that a majority of those US voters who identified themselves as Republicans, believe that Obama didn't win the presidency fairly. (I wonder how that compares with Democrats' beliefs about Bush in 2000?)

On the same day, self-styled Conservative performance artist candidate Doug Hoffman retracted his retraction of his retraction of his concession in the ludicrous NY-23 race. (That means, for those of you who can't be bothered to figure it out, that he is - for the second time - challenging the result and demanding that "every ballot be counted". He is demanding that the election not be "stolen". Apparently, he considers some other election recently, which he doesn't name explicitly, was stolen...)

That makes three stories in one day pointing to a breakdown of faith in the democratic process: one homegrown, two USAlien. All it needs is for a survey in the UK to report that most people don't believe that voting can make a difference any more - not that unlikely, I'd think, on recent trends - and we'd have a full set.

Does this mean there's something wrong with democracy? Well, obviously there is, plenty, but is the present spate anything unusual?

I'm inclined to think not. There have always been plenty of people who are upset about losing. Until they actually go out and buy guns and try to change the government the old-fashioned way, I'm going to take the bright view and say that democracy is still working. For now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep Thought, shallow mind

IBM announces a computer that simulates a cat's brain.

Well, not quite. What it says it's actually built is a neural network with as many neurons as a cat's cerebral cortex. That's quite a long way short of a cat's whole brain. And it works at least a hundred times slower than the real thing. And it takes truly ridiculous amounts of computing power and memory to do it - if you could somehow chain together every computer I've ever seen in my life, including various super-computers in my journalistic career, they wouldn't even be fit to read its keyboard.

The thing must play a mean game of chess.

Why a cat? Because neurologists have been playing with cats' brains for a very long time. I still remember reading an account in Scientific American of dream research on cats, over 30 years ago, and they've remained a popular experimental subject ever since. Maybe because they're so like humans - egotistical, arrogant and lazy. Anyway, the feline brain is extremely well mapped territory.

And of course it lends itself to all the obvious jokes about lasagne and mice and sleeping and walking on keyboards...

Which brings me to my point. (Yes, I've got one.)

If you build a brain without a body to put it in - what is it going to think about?

I don't know about you, but when I wake up in the morning the very first thing I think about is generally "does it feel like I've had enough hours asleep?" - if not, I'll start looking for clues (like light and noise levels) that might indicate that it's not, in fact, morning. If it's still night, I'll try to eliminate whatever discomfort caused me to wake up and then get back to sleep. If it is morning, then I'll try to make myself as comfortable as possible while I open curtains, drink tea, dress, breakfast, etc., etc...

Basically, the driving motivation of my thoughts at this point is my bodily comfort.

And that remains true for a lot of the day. My body needs things to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over its head and a chair under its bum, all of which it will go to considerable trouble to optimise. It contains, within it, the desires for chocolate, alcohol, sex, coffee, toilet paper and other good things. Take all those desires away, and what exactly would be left?

"This intellectual being/These thoughts that wander through eternity", as Milton puts it. But would those even exist, if it weren't for the deeper physical needs that give rise to them? Even the sense of boredom is caused by physical constraints - the physical inability to do what you want to, when you want to do it. In science fiction, the archetypal Brain In A Jar is usually obsessed with the simple goal of acquiring a body for itself. (Or - which is the same thing - the delusion that it already has one.)

But if it had no concept of what a body was, then what exactly would it think about?

If anyone from IBM is reading this, maybe they can answer me.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I never used to worry about cows. Even when, aged twelve or so, I was charged - rather half-heartedly, it must be admitted - by a bull, I was more amused than scared. But now they're preying on my mind. Maybe it's my conscience, reminding me of all the steaks I've eaten and the leather shoes I'm wearing.

Or maybe the cows are getting more dangerous.

I've spent the past week driving my dear sainted grey-haired old mother about the island. It's her first visit to New Zealand, and I wanted to show her as much as possible of what I love about this country. Her admiration for the scenery is perfectly satisfying; she goes into unsolicited raptures about the trees; she enjoys the geology and the flowers.

But the cows worry her. There are too many of them, she insists. Not in absolute numbers, but each field that contains them, contains too many of them for the size of field.

You might say they're overcowded. But let's not.

Admittedly she's not a farmer, but she has lived a large part of her life in the country. She knows what a field full of cows is supposed to look like. And it may be just the power of suggestion, but I think she's right...

On Sunday, as we drove from Coromandel to Whitianga, I was privileged to see one of these bovines relieving its bladder. It was a horrific sight: not to mince words, it looked as if this particular cow had been bred more for firefighting than milking. Suddenly I became aware that I'd had a lot of coffee for breakfast, and my own bladder would be needing relief before I was much older. Which was vexing, as we were not, so to speak, conveniently located.

For the next half hour, I tried to take my mind off the spectacle. As we drove through the rolling agricultural pastures of the Coromandel peninsula, I tried not to think about cows. As we stopped at the beach, I studiously ignored the waves gently lapping the shore twenty metres from my left ear. A house across the road had what looked like an outhouse. On these occasions, one can't help looking at these things a little more speculatively than one has any strict right to.

Sometimes the scenery just won't give you a break.

By the time we reached the sanctuary of Whitianga and a civilised cafe, I was wondering: how hard can it be to drive with one's legs crossed?

But now Deadlyjelly's report has my mind going in an even more sinister direction. What if the cows themselves sense that they are being packed too tightly? What if it's affecting their (and you'll have to pardon me here, contact with my immediate family often has this effect on me) mood? What if modern farming is turning these legendarily placid animals into barely-containable barrels of raw bovine vengeance?

What if New Zealand is heading for its own Orwellian nightmare? The irony would be rich indeed.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blood money

There's one of those sad stories on Slashdot, today, illustrating the real purpose of the Iraq war...

It points to a New York Times story about how the Iraqi army is using, basically, divining rods to detect explosives at checkpoints. There's a predictable slew of comments attacking unscientific methods in general and dowsing in particular, uncited studies supposedly debunking unverifiable anecdotes, all of it illustrating the boundless arrogance of random people on the Internet. But what really strikes me is the price of these divining rods.

Apparently, the Iraqis buy them for anything between US$16,500 to US$60,000.

That's a lot of money for a stick.

And they bought them - 1500 of them, so far - from a British company. That is to say, from one of the occupying powers.

I don't know how much Britain has spent on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Billions, I presume. So it's nice that they've got $50 million or so back like this. Except, of course, that the money came from the taxpayers, but the return is going into the pockets of private investors. In other words, it's yet another redistribution of cash from (everyone) to a very select group of people.

It'd be vastly more efficient, to say nothing of costing many fewer lives, simply to let them dip their hands in the till directly. Looked at in that light, the "MPs' expenses" business looks positively enlightened.

Personally, if someone offers me a dowsing-based bomb-detection system, I'm perfectly willing to listen. If they put on a good demo, I'll even set up some tests of my own. But I also have this belief, which I can't quite shake, in the concept of a "fair price" - something that is at least vaguely related to the cost of production. Don't tell me that price was set in a free market.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In which I tell journalists their business

I buy at least one newspaper a week. Every Thursday, the New Zealand Herald publishes a simple, easy-to-follow and mostly accurate seven-day TV guide; buying that issue relieves me of the need to buy TV Guide, with its irritating layout and pages of guff about soap stars and other people I don't ever want to know about. (The Herald's own pages of that guff are an order of magnitude less irritating.)

Some weeks I also buy The Economist. It gives me something to read in the bath. And it makes me feel as if I'm still part of the world, not completely cut off on this tiny island a thousand miles from anywhere. So that's two newspapers some weeks. Let's say an average of six per month.

On top of that, there's a couple of freebies that get dropped in my letterbox: a council newsletter of no interest (it doesn't cover anything controversial, and I haven't taken an interest in any of what it does cover), and the Howick & Pakuranga Times, a very local sheet that covers school sports, amateur dramatics, road changes and the like.

The latter is really pretty good. I read more of it than I do of the Herald, for reasons I'll come to presently.

All this dead-tree consumption probably puts me ahead of most people, nowadays. I've been hearing a lot about how newspaper circulations have dropped off a cliff. Ad revenues have dropped, and big-name players are in trouble. Back in June Richard Posner, a highly regarded US blogger on things legal, made this the basis of an argument for stronger copyright for online newspapers. Unless online newspapers are able to charge for content (Posner argued), they'd all end up out of business.

Naturally I rolled my eyes and started to dream up reasons why such a change either wouldn't or shouldn't work. But it's only more recently that I've discovered a clearer and more objective flaw in Posner's reasoning: his premise is just plain false. Not all newspapers are in trouble.

The Economist, for one, goes from strength to strength. So does the Wall Street Journal. The Financial Times has compensated for circulation falling in its home market by expanding its international subscriptions.

Apparently it's not such a bad time to be a journalist, if you're a business journalist. And that's an important clue to what's really going on in the news business.

To be sure, the Internet has changed the news-publishing game by making practically all published news available for free. Why (the conventional wisdom runs) would people buy the New Zealand Herald when they can read the whole thing online?

But conventional wisdom is severely underestimating the problem. Not only can I read the Herald online - all of it - I can also read the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, or the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Jerusalem Post or Cape Times. Every English-language newspaper is now available in every English-language market. That's a lot of competition.

There are still things the Herald does better. (NZ TV programmes, for instance.) But those things probably aren't enough, in truth, to justify publishing and distributing a whole broadsheet paper every day.

Newspapers need to understand, not only what it is that they can deliver 'better' than anyone else, but also who their target audience is. Historically, that was clearly defined by their circulation areas, which in turn were dictated by the logistics of printing copies and distributing them to readers. Now, that's no longer the case. The Herald's target readership should include not just the northern part of New Zealand's north island, but every English-speaking person in the world who, for whatever reason, wants to know what's going on in New Zealand.

The Economist understands this. Anyone with a reasonable education in anything can pick up an issue and read it, without feeling that they're missing out on vast swathes of vital background knowledge. Try that with - ooh, any other paper you don't read regularly - there are plenty of links above. The press's central problem isn't with protecting their content, but simply with a massive global overcapacity in their business.

And that's where Posner's idea comes from. From an economic perspective, it makes sense to address that overcapacity by wider syndication of content - which would, indeed, require simpler and better ways to control unauthorised copying. Posner's problem is that he only sees a tiny part of the overall issue, and offers no way to address the rest of it. His proposal makes sense if, and only if, you trust that the big players in the market will deal fairly and honestly not only with each other, but also with every small-timer and two-bit blogger.