Neoliberalism and big data: public and private goods

In the words of Ronald Regan, here we go again.*

Sandy Pentland rehearses something that’s made it’s way from heresy to platitudinal commonplace with breakneck speed. Asked “what, specifically, is the New Deal on Data?” Sandy tells us this:

It’s a rebalancing of the ownership of data in favor of the individual whose data is collected. People would have the same rights they now have over their physical bodies and their money.

Jaron Lanier has written a book on devolving power to individuals in their own data.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the Wrong Metaphor. Just as it was a pity that we ever called intellectual property intellectual property (we want strong property rights don’t we? Pretty much the stronger the better) so now by making data something that is owned, our metaphor gives short shrift to the free rider opportunity.

Once more with feeling, here are the words of Thomas Jefferson, well known freedom fighter and slave-owner.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Now it’s one thing to say that, in so far as we arrogate a right of control to anyone, it should be to the individual that the data is about. This is arbitrary in some ways.  It took two to tango and the data is about some attribute or assumed attribute of the industrial, but it was also the product of someone else capturing and organising that data. But since we want a society in which individuals are empowered, that all seems good.

But there’s a problem. We’ve errected this idea of someone owning their own data out of anxiety about the way it was being misused, for instance in ways that compromised individuals privacy. So we’ve done something about that – as well we might.

But along the way that metaphor got in the way. Here we have data – which in the age of the internet is always and everywhere a global public good. And here we have identifiable mischiefs that can befall an industrial. But instead of focusing the remedy around constraining the mischief in the most efficient way – with regimes that make it difficult and punishable to misuse data and create those mischiefs, we’ve gone with The Metaphor. Your data is yours. And we’ve gone with something that we built modern commercial law from and which lawyers love. Consent. We’re devolving the decisions to those at the coalface – a good instinct – and, hey, it’s your data so you had better consent to all the uses it will be put to.

But this is already going too far. Why? Because you can’t possibly consent to all the possible worthwhile uses to which your data could be put. Furthermore this all smacks of the fiction of infinite computing power which has been so useful, for instance in macro-economics in building views of the world which are unparadoxically, counterintuitive and at the same time wrong. If data is owned, then the cascade of permissions follows from the logic of property.**

One of the most important things I know about political discourse I got from a few lines in Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. The ‘engine’ behind democracy – what makes us engage – is not reason (which tells us that there’s no point in engaging because of the infinitesimal chance we have of affecting the outcome) but affect – our emotional and expressive selves. And this governs what gets covered by the media – what takes off as a meme and what doesn’t. And it turns out the metaphors of property are pretty memeworthy, while the metaphors of a public good commons are strangely not.

Anyway, for the record, reason tells us that when it comes to data we’re staring at a massive and exponentially*** growing free rider opportunity. That that opportunity ramifies into the future into a multiverse of possibilities. We want to put people in control of their data to the extent that we want them to make decisions about whether they wish to compromise their rights – for instance to privacy – for whatever reason they may wish to. Moreover this is the only way we can build a healthy eco-system in personal data in a democratic world. (And doing so would be a major economic and social boon!)

But we don’t want them to individually or even in principle consent to every possible use of their data. Rather – and people might differ on how far to go – we want to identify a universe of possible objections that people might have to allowing others to use their data and empower them to prevent such objectionable uses. Beyond that, in the words of that well known Socialist Muslim Barack Hussein Obama “they didn’t build that”. We all built it. Or to put it more clearly, we are all the beneficiaries of the information world we have built which makes it possible for there to be data on us. And if our data can help benefit future generations by being free subject to being vouchsafed against reasonable mischiefs, then it’s the least we can do to set it free.       

* Yes, I know he said 'There you go again, but I'm after cheap mellifluence here - cut me some slack.
** As an aside I note that it may follow from the logic of property, but not from the fact of property which has always practically made room for the idea of multiple use without consent. Thus easements, adverse possession, residual rights, riparian rights, mining rights, airspace rights and on it goes.
*** Yes folks, I mean exponentially - not "really so amaaaazzzingly faaast you won't belieeeeve it".

Habituation – to mediocrity

A Tale of Repetition: Lessons from Florida Restaurant Inspections
by Ginger Zhe Jin, Jungmin Lee – #20596 (IO)


We examine the role of repetition in government regulation. Using
Florida restaurant inspection data from 2003 to 2010, we find that
inspectors new to the inspected restaurant report 12.7-17.5% more
violations than the second visit of a repeat inspector. This effect
is even more pronounced if the previous inspector had inspected the
restaurant more times. The difference between new and repeat
inspectors is driven partly by inspector heterogeneity in inherent
taste and stringency, and partly by new inspectors having fresher
eyes in the first visit of a restaurant.

A charter city for refugees?

hkHere is quite a good article seeking to “reframe” the asylum seeker debate. It takes a reasonably moderate, non-hysterical approach.

I haven’t written on the subject recently myself, because I have been feeling a little conflicted. On the one hand, long-time Troppo readers will be aware I have always been of the view that reasonably firm border protection and asylum seeker processing policies are justified in Australia in order to maintain public confidence in our very successful migration program and avoid or minimise social tensions and divisions that would inevitably emerge if the pace of arrivals was greater than the nation could comfortably absorb (assimilate is a forbidden expression). From this perspective the Abbott government has been very successful: it really has stopped the boats (at least for the present).

On the other hand, any policy prescriptions for asylum seekers must meet at least two basic human rights requirements:

Continue reading

Happy 20th birthday to blogging!

Just a note to record the fact that blogging is 20 years old this month, maybe. New media legend Dave Winer, a rare combination of great writer and programmer, started posting at DaveNet on 7 October 1994, as Philip Greenspun points out. There was no announcement that Winer had invented a new genre, but I can’t really find anything that looks like a blog going back much earlier than that – though writer Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor got started around the same time and Justin Hall was also getting busy.

DaveNet started as the web version of Winer’s email newsletter, but having found the web-based format was popular, he started pushing through classic weblog fodder – short thoughts, links, and reflections on stuff other people were saying.

Having invented the weblog, Winer then helped to develop RSS and co-invented podcasting, proselytised for proper web content management systems, built outliners and basically helped invent the media landscape we have today. What a guy.

As Greenspun puts it:

The standard HTTP/HTML Web was and is great for 3-30-page ideas. Winer was perhaps the first person to see that the world needed some different technical standards to deal with three-paragraph ideas.

People frequently see blogging as something completely new. In fact, though, it has quite a few media predecessors, notably the personal diary. From one perspective, a blog was simply a way of publishing your own diary to a mass audience. But it also had a number of new aspects: for instance, it frequently used links to exploit the availability of huge numbers of online media sources.

Blogging was also one of the first online media products to showcase online brevity. Facebook and Twitter* then came along and underlined this unexpected development. Indeed, for all the talk about the wonders to come from ultra-fast broadband, the big online media developments of the past two decades have to a surprising degree been about short written content.

* Fun online media “fact”: I read somewhere long ago – and perhaps it’s even true – that the average Victorian-era diary entry would fit comfortably within Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Greek Film Festival @Palace Cinema Como: Top Picks

Top Picks

In the Greek island of Andros during World War II, the lives of its women are dominated by long periods of isolation brought on by the seafaring nature of the island’s economy. Two sisters-the quiet and reticent Orsa and the extroverted Moshca-become entangled in a love triangle that develops with life-shattering consequences.
☆☆☆☆ Always Watch Good Movies
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:
Niko is a romantic, young Greek writer living in London. When he falls into financial trouble, he flees town and hides out in his family’s neglected house in the Greek mountain town of Siatista. Surrounded by ghosts of the past and drawn back to a time that exists only in his memory, Niko must uncover the mystery of his father’s death. He must also retain his grasp on reality as the line between what is real and what is the product of his imagination begins to blur.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:
This documentary exposes Cyprus’ often-ignored refugee crisis. It presents a unique cross-section of émigrés, expounding heartbreakingly on their journeys and varying-sometimes extreme-degrees of success or failure. Also charts the rise of the extreme political right on the island, and the accompanying backlash to the wave of refugees engulfing the EU.
☆☆☆☆ Film Threat
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:
A sumptuous period drama set in 1922, Brides is the story of a mail order bride-one of 700 from every corner of Greece, Turkey, Russia and Armenia-aboard the SS King Alexander bound for the USA. In her suitcase is a photograph of an unwelcome bridegroom and her wedding gown. Also on this vessel, but traveling in first class rather than third, is an American photographer on his way home to a failed marriage. She meets him, and she falls in love.
☆☆☆☆☆ Hoopla
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆ Movie Review
☆☆☆☆ SearchSA
Show Timings:
A chance meeting between George-a handsome 30-something under pressure to propose to his girlfriend-and the devastatingly beautiful ‘Bride’-who has bailed on her groom-to-be on their wedding day-forces two strangers to confront their hang-ups about love, marriage, insecurity and commitment. They set off on an unforgettable road trip across Cyprus and embark on an odyssey into self-discovery in the process.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:
After the death of their Albanian mother, two brothers-the flamboyantly gay, 16 year-old Danny and golden-voiced 18 year-old Odysseas-leave Athens on a journey to Thessaloniki, to locate their biological father in an attempt to avoid deportation to Albania. Marginalized in everyday Greek society, Danny also sees the upcoming Thessaloniki heats of the cult television talent show Greek Star as their ticket to acceptance and a way out of the uncompromising realities of modern Grecian life.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆ Queertiques
Show Timings:
Set in Brisbane’s outer suburbs in the late ‘70s, Maiden is the story of battling greyhound trainer Mick, desperate to give his family a better life. Convinced that his latest charge is a champion in the making, Mick is prepared to gamble everything on a lowly race at a small country track that could have disastrous consequences.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:
In the aftermath of the Greek Civil War in 1951, the innocence of a child is lost when catapulted to head of his family. He reluctantly begins a desperate and traumatic journey to flee poverty and an unforgiving people. Carrying his baby sister on his shoulders, he treks the inhospitable mountainous terrain in search of a future. The past follows them. Her future awaits…
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:
Makis is a well-to-do, 40-something depressive in the throes of an existential crisis. His household is one based on lies and pretentious appearances, so he’s more than determined to formulate his own escape plan. 5 Ways 2 Die is the tragic-comic, sociopolitical tale of Makis’ search for eternal peace.
☆☆☆☆ Film Threat
☆☆☆☆ IMDB
Show Timings:

Melbourne Schedule

Wednesday 15 October 2014
Thursday 16 October 2014
Friday 17 October 2014
Saturday 18 October 2014
Sunday 19 October 2014
Monday 20 October 2014
Tuesday 21 October 2014
Wednesday 22 October 2014
Thursday 23 October 2014
Friday 24 October 2014
Saturday 25 October 2014
Sunday 26 October 2014
Monday 27 October 2014
Tuesday 28 October 2014
Wednesday 29 October 2014
Thursday 30 October 2014
Friday 31 October 2014
Saturday 1 November 2014
Sunday 2 November 2014

ANAM Quartetthouse: go if you can

3 - MultiThe Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) lives in the suburb next to mine and is a Good Thing. It’s housed in one of the umpteen magnificent town halls of Melbourne, in this case South Melbourne Town Hall and a lot of its concerts are put on by students, often supplemented by their teachers or some professional musician.

Now apart from liking the idea of listening to students play beautiful music, I can’t really tell the difference between lots of music students and great professional players, so what’s there not to like?

In any event in recent times a mysterious plywood box has been build outside the Town Hall. It’s a Quartetthaus would you believe and there are three concerts a day going on in there for the next week or so. The sound is a bit like being inside a set of headphones. The space is not larger than a largish room of a house. 52 seats are located in two concentric circles around a small circular stage on which four players play string quartets. You become aware after about five minutes that the stage is actually rotating. Which is kind of cool (In your case, owing to this article, you will be aware of this before you go, so please take appropriate precautions).

I went last night and heard a Beethoven string quartet and then a Janácek string quartet. It was very enjoyable, and cheap as such things go ($30 per person).

So I say go. Go Now. Go if you can. While you’re there you can find out why they spell Quartetthaus with a double ‘T’. And why do they speed up the rotation of the stage at the end until the players fly out into the audience (OK, I made that bit up. They don’t – but only because ethics approval would have been so hard to get. Maybe next year.)

Matt Levine helps you understand the bank regulation problem in 1800 words

If you want to understand what bank regulators were doing in 2008, and what people like APRA and the Reserve Bank worry about here, try reading Matt Levine’s latest column.

Leviine’s piece is nominally about a weird court case involving AIG, the insurance behemoth which almost blew up the world financial system in 2008. But in the process of explaining the court case, Levine sets out with admirable clarity why our current banking system doesn’t allow easy, perfect regulatory solutions to banking problems like we faced six years ago. (A different banking system might do that, but so far no-one has come up with anything even faintly convincing enough to make us re-architect the entire financial world.)


Simplifying a lot, a bank is a thing that allows some people (“savers”) to put money somewhere, get paid interest on it and be confident that they’ll get it back, and that allows that money to be invested in the real economy. That is: Banks have risky claims on the real economy and hand out risk-free claims to their savers.

This is a bit of magic that works most of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes people realize that their risk-free claims are backed by risky assets, and might be riskier than they thought, and then they panic and pull their money out of the banks and that’s a big problem for the rest of the economy. This has been an extremely well-known problem for centuries, and the solution has been extremely well-known for about 140 years. It’s for the central bank to lend the banks money until the crisis passes.

This has nothing to do with subprime, or derivatives, or too-big-to-fail banks. It’s just a feature of banks, which are where the money is, but only in a probabilistic sense. Sometimes they are not where the money is, and that’s a crisis. But if the central bank (or, sort of equivalently, the government) lends them money, then the crisis will pass, and they’ll be able to pay it back with interest.

Many people dislike this, and it is sort of unseemly, but it really is a well-known set of facts. You can reduce the risk of banking crises happening, but not to zero, because of that core mismatch between banking’s risky assets and savers’ expectations of safety. And if crises do happen, central-bank support seems to be the only effective way to solve them.

Among other things Levine points out, in his copious and typically excellent footnotes*, that what we call “bail-outs” are less about helping bankers and more about helping the people (“bank creditors”) who have lent a lot of money to banks. In Australia these days, of course, people who have lent a little bit to banks are generally covered by a government guarantee.

Read the whole thing.

* I have no idea why so few journalistic articles in online-only publications have footnotes. They seem like a terrific idea for dealing with thoughts that aren’t core to your main narrative. Levine’s footnotes are a series of tasty hors d’ouevres sprinkled through the main meal.