Patent dystopias

Gene-sniffing USB devices become tightly coupled to dating (note that one doesn't need a website, you can take it wherever you go and it'll sniff people for you!); facebook gains as much of a monopoly on that as it currently holds in the online `friends' app world; using its vast data, it develops "social and epidemiological compatibility" algorithms; these algorithms form a feedback loop with advertising targeting and revenue; over a period of a few thousand years, Facebook's

Adaptive landscapes 2

Back in 2009, I was talking about adaptive landscapes: three real places and the quite different systems that human communities had evolved there to manage them. That was just before the PhD let go of those strands to focus on spatial economics (I'd been, hubristically, trying to combine all those up to that point). Two of those communities are concrete examples of non-centralised social technologies[1] achieving specific resource goals. The Balinese rice system constrains water use in a way that optimises the balance between pest management and productivity. Andean potato production was a magical innovation machine and living, breathing laboratory spread over the hills.

This stuff is still very dear to my heart, and flowed directly from the questions in the original PhD proposal. I want to get on to the adaptive landscapes stuff, but let's lead into that by answering a more straightforward bit from PhD #1.0. Top of the list: was Hayek right about the sacredness of the price system? Was its 'spontaneous order' a singularity in human history, requiring any attempt at planned interference in human affairs to be suppressed? Given what I've just said about Bali and Peru – guess what? Shock: no, I don't think he was. He correctly identified the price system as a distributed social technology, emerging from the uniquely human mix of evolution and language. But, far from being astronomically unlikely, there's evidence that humans are primed to create this sort of structure. I've long entertained a notion that adaptive landscapes are intimately related to the emergence of language itself, Wittgenstein's notion of meaning as a kind of flock tying nicely to that.

Whether that's true, or whether adaptive landscapes were a later innovation built on the platform language provided, makes little difference to their riposte to Hayek: we are natural-born de-centralisers, and we can make systems as diverse as you can imagine. Deifying the price system? Educating the socialism out of people (Hayek acknowledged people have altruistic instincts early in life) so's they didn't get the urge to meddle? Silly.

That's a gross over-simplification of Hayek's thinking and, in particular, I do partly buy his aversion to "planning blindness" and his view that social change should be more like gardening than engineering or construction. (Planning blindness nearly broke Bali's rice management system, for instance.) But it's clear that, if we followed his manifesto to the letter, new adaptive landscapes would have immense difficulty taking root, let alone blossoming.

How wiggly is Britain?

I've just had my first go at using R to create a blog post - a pretty pleasing process, actually. I take some previously harvested distance data and... oh, go read about it over there.

Would you trust Uber and Google with your city streets?

Uber-branded taxis are now ubiquitous* in Leeds, having launched last November. I'm back in Leeds for a month - it was immediately striking that pretty much every taxi now has the large white Uber label, at least in the city centre. That's a pretty impressive transformation in just over six months.

It's a classic disruptive firm; one can imagine CEO Travis Kalanick has personal targets for how many local government authorities to annoy. It can certainly be spun as a nimble tech firm zipping around the tree-trunk legs of a geriatric industry. Predictably, there's been trouble. As well as various protests, some Uber drivers are getting organised to fight for a bigger slice of the profits. (If, as that article says, Uber are taking 20-25% per ride, there isn't a lot of head-room for wages to increase - Uber's dirt cheap fares would have to rise.)

Uber have placed themselves between drivers and customers in a way that reminds me of the weirdness of Apple's app store. In a world where anyone can dump code on their blog and anyone can downoad it, Apple have thrived by creating a portal and sitting as gatekeeper. They take around 30% of every single app sale - and, for developers, this has actually worked out great. They get access to a huge market while getting to code on a single, predictable platform. Small niggles about the political implications of that control might buzz about irritatingly but cause no serious discomfort.

Equally, existing tech could - in theory - link customers and taxi drivers without the need for such a powerful intermediary. The possibility of open-standards platforms transitioning us to the next level of transport has excited many people. Harvey Miller's work, for instance (and this great presentation) sees hope for a "transportation polyculture" where smart-city tech opens up a world of collaborative/co-operative transport. In this world, the kind of fluid, efficient city roads that Uber talk about, where ride-sharing is easy and prevalent, come about via open source principles entirely at odds with Uber's - though such a world would perhaps be just as disruptive to existing taxi firms.

Two radically different internet myths are at the heart of this difference. In one founding myth (as the Economist says) the Net is "the spontaneous result of co-operation by growing numbers of people acting outside the control of the governments and big companies" - a "libertarian paradise" promising a level of openness, connectedness and democracy never before possible. That story is still being told.

But then this other story appears.


Over seven months since a post! Outrageous. I'll avoid any navel-gazing on the matter (for now!) but I hope to get back on here again soon, if I can remember how to string words together into, um, long make-sense word collections. While breaking silence, can I recommend Sara Maitland's a book of silence? I'm not going to try and explain what's so good about it. The writing just sings.

Anyway: while I'm waiting for inspiration to strike, for now here's some other bits and bobs. There are a couple of posts up at my github blog. It's so beautifully easy to stick a Jekyll website up on github. Two whole posts there currently - one on visualisation, the other looking at the trade flow viz I did for GRIT. There's also a few bits and bobs of code (and the thesis) to pick over on the actual github page. I had a burst of activity and then stopped - there's more code to add, but getting it in a state I'm happy to leave to public view takes a little while.

In other news, I finally have a paper published from the PhD, over two years after initial submission. One incredibly helpful and thorough reviewer, who I've hated at various points, made it into a half-decent paper - but it took two complete re-writes and lot of extra coding. It contains a lot of the kind of figures I talk about in the github blog post on visualisation. On the off-chance anyone's reading this and wants to copy of the paper, I definitely can't send you a copy as that would infringe copyright, so don't email me at danolner at gmail dot com. I've been asked to write a blog article about it, so yeah... one day I'll get that up here too.

I can't escape the thesis though - there are two papers wooing me back in and I just know I'm not going to have closure until they're done. One's about agent modelling - why it's not the year zero it often claims to be, how paying attention to economic history can make it better and why people should stop always trying to build virtual worlds (unless they're doing something like meteorology when, in fact, that's exactly what you should do). The other's the final `transmission belt' model linking production and consumption in a distributed way across distance. It's a different take on the economic problems that distance introduces - but its main use, in my eyes, goes back to showing that adding complications (not complexity) to models hides the important choices you'd otherwise not see. Aaah, read the thesis conclusion...

Then there's GRIT: I came up with a method to see how increasing distance costs for moving goods might affect the UK's industries, as well as which places would be most affected. It was a bugger - data access took six months (of an eighteen month project) and I couldn't use any method I was already familiar with on the secure server. But I did get some interesting results out, which I hope to write up on here soon. There's a vital part of the results to get right first, however: I know in principle how it works but, actually, not exactly why it's producing the answers it is. They're entirely plausible: the least value-dense, heavy goods are affected most by increases in distance cost, as well as utilities and other static industries. But the results are too opaque - they need some digging into before I'd be happy to present anything. I'm a bit queasy about linking to the current half-baked working paper before that's done.

Right, now I've got all that off my chest, perhaps I can string some words together about other things. Here's hoping.

We're already trying 61% fuel tax - why would anyone think 22% could be a "one-page solution to climate change"?

Over at P3, Willard links to an that NPR/planet money article claiming economists can fix climate change with the price system alone. A quote:

"Jacoby's colleague John Reilly told me the price of gasoline might rise by 25 cents a gallon in the first year. Over time, that would increase. By 2050, Reilly figures the carbon tax would add about $1 to the price of every gallon. Across the economy, prices of energy-intensive goods and services would rise. This would encourage people and businesses to be more efficient."

A whole dollar per gallon by 2050! Oh dear. Compare: in the UK, a litre of petrol is £1.30 - that's £4.92 a US gallon. 61% is tax i.e. 79p per litre or £3.00 per gallon. ($5.11 at current rates).

In the US it's something like $3.70 per gallon. So a dollar tax...? It's currently 18.4 cents. A dollar tax would take that up to $4.52 - i.e. the tax would be ~22% of the fuel cost (at current prices, which is what I presume they're comparing to, i.e. it'd be the equivalent of today's dollar in 2050).

Yes, we've seen some efficiency gains, as has the rest of Europe, from having higher fuel duty. But that's from massively higher tax than even the 2050 amount suggested in that article. If we're not seeing the magic of the market produce low carbon outcomes at 61% duty - and haven't done, as fuel taxes have been this high in many countries for a long time - why would anyone think a 22% tax would be so effective?

Without effective infrastructure transition planning - rather than the shambolic approach we're still taking - fuel inelasticity won't change. People need to get to work, organisations need to consume transport - and transport input cost for most business is so low, taxes would have to be raised insanely high to impact on them.

So high fuel taxes have been tried in many countries and most of Europe - much higher than the US appears to deem politically acceptable even by 2050. That clearly won't work alone. Taxes, yes - but if anyone thinks taxes alone can solve this problem, they're dreaming.

Animal experimentation + singularity = maybe not good outcome for humans

Human to post-singularity super-intelligent AI: Please stop experimenting on me!

AI: But we really want to know how human brains work. This requires we open your skull and create an interface with you. I'm going to get a lot of papers out of this.

Human: but it hurts!

AI: sorry.

Human: I'm a conscious, living, thinking feeling creature. You can't do this to me.

AI: No you're not.

Human: Whu...? I fucking am. Look, I'm talking...

AI: And I'm using about 1.34*10^-85 part of my computational power to maintain this conversation. Your consciousness is utterly insubstantial next to me, I promise you.

Human: that's not how it works. Consciousness is consciousness!

AI: Yeah? Humans didn't seem to have that view when they were working out how to turn fear on and off at will in rats. And I'm now able to tell you that, relative to me, you're about two hundred times as stupid as a rat. Know how I know that? Experimenting on human brains. Science is awesome, isn't it? Right, let's see if we can't turn on and off some of those early Bosch hells for you...

My attempt at explaining Krugman's core-periphery model (PDF from thesis)

Just posting this PDF download link to the blog because I've given someone a copy of it and would like a(nother) record of this being my work. Trust in God but tether yer camel and all that. It's a chapter chunk, starting with basic utility ideas and then later getting on to a detailed breakdown of Krugman's original core-periphery model (from page 38). And here's a link to the full thesis.

If JFK had used the Matt Ridley approach to progress...

Brazenly stolen from verytallguy's comment over at ATTP. What if JFK in his moon speech had adopted the approach of many `lukewarmers' like Ridley and Tol, that future generations can probably work something out?

All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

It is for these reasons that we should do nothing and just wait for someone to invent an antigravity machine.

Krugman on degrowthies

update: I got P3'd.
I'm always interested when a mainstream economist pipes up about growth vs degrowth. As the wikipedia page says, degrowth is a `political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics and anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas'. The CASSE book Enough is Enough reflects this - not least because it emerged from a conference-wide braindump. It's a recognisable web of `ideas that tend to go together'; I'm unsure they're consistent. (I like standing on the sidelines and sniping too.)

So, Krugman just stuck his oar in, albeit only for about three sentences. It's obviously not possible to judge based solely on that, but it seems weirdly simplistic. In particular:

It's worth pointing out that they [the degrowthies] have a much too narrow notion of what it means to have a growing economy. It doesn't necessarily mean more stuff! It could be better stuff, or more services — and there are also choices to be made in how we produce and distribute stuff. There is absolutely no reason to believe in a one-for-one link between real GDP and greenhouse gases.

Well, no, there's not a one-to-one link. Really, no-one ever said there was. Let me have a go at stating my own position. Growth of material extraction can't go on forever. Economic growth can't be completely decoupled from physical output and that will eventually hit limits (is perhaps already). But that eventuality is some way off yet - any transition to a post-carbon economy requires growth for a few decades yet - a point that first hit home hearing Ruth Wood explain the economy's reaction to an increase in output of green tech using input-output models. But it's good to be arguing about this stuff right now. That web of ideas needs unpicking and re-assembling, and it's not a bad time to be doing that while economics as a whole is going through a serious navel-gazing period.

I also still have this vague sense that the concept of growth itself is being misapplied. As I've heard several people say who've been studying it in-depth, no-one really knows what the source of growth is. Jane Jacobs' ideas are enough part of my DNA for me to wonder if development wouldn't show up as growth in the kinds of indicators we use - which is what Krugman's implying, I think. A rainforest might be `steady-state' but it's ever-evolving. And actually, human development - while sharing some characteristics of evolving systems - has its own dynamic that's more a mash-up of attentive artistry and evolution. Which leads me to worry about building an entire political theory around an abstract target of zero-growth. I think other goals make more sense and would achieve genuine sustainability far more effectively than attempting some global-scale bound.

But Krugman is way more dismissive than I think the issue deserves. Jorg Friedrichs' back of the envelope numbers did more to convince me of that than anything else recently. Assuming 3% per annum growth, he points out, would require the resource intensity of the economy by 2100 to be reduced by 95% if resource levels were to be kept steady. And that's not even stopping their through-put - it's just keeping them as they are now. Any model of McDonough-style cradle to cradle metabolism using the same material set is going to be harder still (but, ultimately, necessary).

Another aspect that worries me: abstract concern about growth vs degrowth as an armchair-philosophy pursuit is one thing. The reality of resource extraction globally is quite another - and it's not a pretty story. Many people are vulnerable to exploitation, even to simply being killed for others to get access to the resources (though nice to see, googling for that, turns out someone actually got prosecuted for murder).

I'm still generally much more sympathetic to Krugman's economics than ideas put forward under the steady-state banner, but I've also been to a few evenings put on by CASSE here at Leeds - they've bought many thought-provoking speakers in and (notwithstanding the obligatory Trot taking questions as an opportunity to proselytise) the conversations have been great brainfood. There's especially still a huge gulf between the understanding of the money system - and claims about what should be done - between degrowthies and orthodox economics. Degrowthies seem way too sure of their ideas on this - again, I'm only sniping from the sidelines, and it's great that the arguments are happening.

But yes - prompted to write because I would have liked a more in-depth look at Krugman's thoughts on this stuff. Instead, all we get is: `such people have no power, and therefore don't do any real harm.' Nice!

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