Ratings on Airbnb

As readers will know, I’ve been a fan of the way in which the internet generates reputational information which greatly improves the efficiency of markets. Still it’s surprising how tricky these things are, something I’ve been pondering while using Airbnb for quite a few stays in Europe.  There are several major problems with Airbnb’s rating system, which are enough to have me much less keen to use it.

Firstly it seems that there’s a happy clappy vibe in collaborative consumption. Perhaps once people have met others they don’t want to reflect on them invidiously. Perhaps they are hyping the vibe of collaborative consumption and how luvvie duvvie it can be. Or perhaps they’re thinking of the incentives. I don’t like leaving bad reviews because when I’m seeking to rent a place, hosts can look up my previous reviews, and if they’re lower than others, they mightn’t want me to so review their place. Perhaps this drives grade inflation on the system.

And perhaps to prevent that, Airbnb do separate out streams of feedback including feedback for all, private feedback for the host and private feedback to Airbnb.

But there’s another problem. Airbnb’s survey is the kind of survey that irritates me when I get one from a hotel. It asks for five stars in various categories which make logical sense.

Accuracy, Communication, Cleanliness, Location, Check In, Value. The thing is, it remains quite possible to have a flat that is more or less uninhabitable whilst retaining a four and a half star rating. How do I know? Because I’v been staying in such a place in Barcelona. It gets four or more stars in all categories and a four and a half star rating overall. About half of the reviews are very positive. So on a quick squiz we booked. Four and a half stars overall? What could go wrong?  Here’s a not untypical review from the remaining reviews.

Jordi met us, and gave us a lot of great information about the neighborhood and the city. The location and price are excellent.

However… I must mention that this is the noisiest place I have ever stayed. The apartment is upstairs from Bar Mariatchi, which is open until at least 3am EVERY DAY, and which has loud music that you will hear through the walls, making sleep nearly impossible, even with earplugs. Plus, you can count on street noise–talking and yelling–until the wee hours EVERY DAY. The noise factor derailed our rest, pushed our sleeping to the “quiet” times (7am-noon), and thus rather derailed our daily sightseeing plans.

If it weren’t for this excessive noise factor, I would recommend this apartment wholeheartedly. As it is, I can only recommend it to those who plan to party into the wee hours every night and sleep the days away.

Note how people are at pains to be nice, even if their time has been effectively ruined. Yet the place keeps getting it’s four and a half plus ratings. Enough to swing my preferences back towards hotels I’m afraid.

Two films to see, one to miss

On any trip one takes in a bunch of movies, at least on the plane. I’ve seen two that I heartily recommend. Belle dramatises (meladramatises?) the true story of a girl who was the product of a British military seaman in the 18th century and a black west indian woman. Before he dies he extracts from a relative the promise to look after his illegitimate daughter that is the product of this union. The resulting dark skinned girl receives a lady’s upbringing and the film portrays all this in a way that was convincing (for me anyway). She ends up marrying an opponent of the slave trade and so the films’ producers have turned this into a Jane Austen style story in which the drama of romance (including the wider family drama) becomes the vehicle in which virtue discovers itself in the world. An difficult thing to try, but well brought off I reckon.

Magic in the Moonlight is Woody Allen’s latest. It’s everything a good Woody Allen movie is. It’s funny and built on a conceit that generates a nice, neat plot through which Allen explores some of his themes. Colin Firth delivers the humour well, though his character is rather too didactically drawn as is Allen’s way. But a very enjoyable movie, if not must see viewing.

The final movie is Russell Crowe’s “The Water Diviner”. I would have steered clear of it from the trailer alone – which allows the viewer to gorge himself on Crowe’s non-acting – but for one thing. It was opening in Istanbul and the film is largely set in Istanbul. It’s the story of an Aussie, Aussie, Aussie who, visits Gallipoli after WWI to find his three dead sons. There in the aftermath of the war he finds Australian and British soldiers going about their moustachioed business of identifying and burying the war dead. They haven’t been able to identify his sons, but hey, Aussie, Aussie Aussie is a water diviner, so he tells them where to dig. And there they are! The characters consist of Aussies (salt of the earth – with the exceptions of the moustaches which are pretty obviously stuck on), Poms (whining and stuck up), Turks, who really can wear a moustache (tough but civilised and with a heart of gold).

But the best is kept till last. Russell ends up in Anatolia where there is major unrest between the muslim and Greek Christian population. Here the Greeks are Bad. As in About As Bad As You Can Get. They’re made up in near blackface from boot-polish and their main pass-time appears to be machine gunning turks. Russell manages to save a Turkish buddy from trouble by whacking a Greek Baddie with a cricket bat with which he’s been teaching the Turks to play cricket - I am not making them up. This was the obvious place for an “oy, oy, oy” but owing to the understated tone of the movie, we are spared. Anyway, I was puzzled at this as it made little sense to me that the Greek minority in the middle of the country would suddenly become uppity – as it was so against their interests. So I looked it up in Wikipedia. There was some aggression from the Greek nation supported by its coalition allies from WWI which landed at Smyrna inflaming racial tensions in the region. the Greeks also had designs on areas in Anatolia in central Turkey where Greeks were a majority. The upshot was vast Turkish massacres of Greeks known as the Greek genocide. It accounts for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Greeks with some accounts giving it a similar scale to the Armenian genocide. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the film.  Still I wouldn’t’ avoid the film for that reason. Avoid it for its vacuity masquerading as profundity, it’s non-acting masquerading as acting.

Being me

I meant to put this up earlier, but it’s sat in ‘drafts’ for a month or more.

Now it can be a new year’s present to yourself. If you missed it last year, make this Four Corners doco on transgender kids the first doco you watch this year. The kids, and one adult interviewed are remarkable people with a straightforwardness and clarity born of the simple courage of having to admit to themselves who they are, and confronting the inevitable pain and fear it causes them and those closest to them.

http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2014/11/17/4127631.htm

Testament of youth: Breaking free of the boilerplate

There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind, which have lain aloof in newspapers and other neglected reading, enter like an earthquake into their own lives — where the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the tread of an invading army or the dire clash of civil war, and gray fathers know nothing to seek for but the corpses of their blooming sons, and girls forgot all vanity to make lint and bandages which may serve for the shattered limbs of their betrothed husbands.

Vera Brittain quotes this magnificent passage from George Elliott’s Daniel Deronda in her own great work, Testimony of Youth. It is of course the story of her generation and the catastrophe of the Great War visited upon them after a century of peace (if you ignore the horrors of colonialism at the periphery). She also says this in the book.

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think – which is fundamentally a moral problem – must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

One of the most iconic and haunting episodes of war, indeed of any time is the Christmas parties that broke out spontaneously – to the horror of the authorities – along substantial sections of the Western front in 1914. Those events stand for many things – most particularly the life-world, in all its fragility breaking out against the iron fist inside the velvet glove of civilisation – the organised forces of coercion and violence behind any successful mass social formation. Yet, by then it was too late. Any insight or inclination that those events stood for could not be turned to any material advantage to anyone and the soldiers were hounded back into the trenches.

I’ve been reading some of Ulysses S Grant’s autobiography and it’s notable how often he juxtaposes moral and physical courage giving the impression that they tend to substitute for one another: Lack of moral courage seems the norm, and it often exacts its price in the need for physical courage. In a world which is so often reduced to boilerplate prose, never less so than today when managers manage their brands, and their own personal ‘brands’, in which politicians of both sides gradually – nowadays rather quickly – disappear beneath the insincerity of their talking points, I loved this film for dramatising this dichotomy in our lives between life as the collection of the petty hypocrisies and insincerities that get us through a normal day and life as a creative and rational act.  Continue reading

Global roaming: Srsly, what gives?

Reliance Communications roaming plans

I have always assumed that the outrageous prices for global roaming on telcos is the problem of double marginalisation. Each of the monopolists takes their cut and here there’s your domestic carrier and then the others in the other market. Perhaps there are some other carriers along the way. But this doesn’t seem to me to explain more than a tiny bit of the extraordinary prices. And there are some very big telcos in the world with investments in many countries. They could span countries and overcome double-marginalisation.

It’s perhaps plausible that businesspeople pay the outrageous charges. Thus for instance one finds oneself paying a dollar or so per megabyte which is a markup of the cost you can get locally of ten thousand per cent or so. And tourists just don’t pay the prices – they get local SIMs. But in any event, it’s not a monopoly. So even if this is the profit maximising price, it should be easily undercut.

It’s not so bad in the US - you toss T-Mobile $60 odd and your right for a month with a gig or so of downloads and unlimited calls – including to a country of your choice for an additional $5 or so. But Europe? Well it’s more balkanised than banking it seems. And there’s a good reason for banking to have trouble as it’s all domestically regulated. Telecommunications is (I presume) also domestically regulated in Europe, but there’s no need to regulate it to so constrain the law of one price. Is there really regulation saying that Lebara in the UK can’t give its Oz customers access to Lebara’s network in the UK?

And there are plenty of merchants trying to arbitrage the market. So much so that Woolies is into it. But their prices hardly tempt one to let them do the arbitraging. They charge 45 cents a megabyte of data which makes 2 Gigs cost $900. Lebara will sell it to you for £12. Woolworths offering is pretty standard. After an hour of looking I found some that charged around 35 cents per megabyte.

Seriously does anyone know why this problem is so bad?

 

Tips and tricks, or ‘tips and tricks of the iceberg’: Going meta on behavioural economics

Standard economics’ traditional penchant for focusing on problems that are chosen for their formal tractability rather than their resemblance to real world problems squeezed non-monetary incentives and ‘irrational’ motives from economists’ purview. At the same time bureaucracies are very good at doing the same thing – of ignoring the specific nature of the life world of those they serve. (Of course ‘cultural incentives’ and if you like ‘irrational’ motives are at the heart of what makes bureaucracies work at all, but that’s internally. Those very conditions create fertile ground in which the organisation will make presumptions on the rationality of those whom they serve. But I digress.)

There are two potential ‘narratives’ as we say these days about behavioural economics as an antidote to this state of affairs. The first – exemplified, for instance in this blog post from behavioural economics consultancy 42 ideas - is that behavioural economics and the policies that emerge from it provide an example of economics’ taking upon itself the injunction “Physician health thyself”. Thus in the place of homo economicus - a simplified but unrealistic view of human nature – behavioural economics investigates the way this model is wrong and policy inspired by it takes those things into account in proposing new policy.

Thus the nudge unit in the UK (we have a small clone of it in NSW) does AB testing on government correspondence – discovering and exploiting the fact that taxpayers show stronger compliance to an arrears letter from the tax authorities if it contains a sentence like “over 90% of taxpayers pay their taxes on time” and the response is a bit higher still if the sentence makes the comparison more personal still “Over 90.5% of your neighbours in Notting Hill pay their tax on time”. These are ‘nudges’ in the vernacular of this field and so too is attention to trying to set the most benign possible defaults to take into account the power of inertia. The classic example – used around the world in both government and business these days is setting people’s savings plans to save higher proportions of their income (often by diverting any pay rise they have received into savings) unless they make a conscious decision not to go along, in which case it’s as easy as ticking a box on a form and they can (consciously) choose some alternative. This is behavioural economics as a box of tips and tricks to be added on to neoclassical economics. The physician, if he hasn’t healed himself, has introduced some routines that are better suited to the world.

But there’s another way to look at these tips and tricks – to look at them as ‘tips and tricks of the iceberg’. Ultimately people must be encountered as such. The tips and tricks of behavioural economics are no more or less than a summary of rules that have been gleaned that have the generality necessary to find their way relatively straightforwardly into the learned journal literature. But there’s a whole life world out there. That’s what needs to be encountered and that’s what is always in danger of being given insufficient weight. As Hayek put it

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is . . . a body of very important but unorganized knowledge: . . . the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. [In this] respect . . . practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation.

Hayek only ever paid any attention to one particularisation of this general proposition – he’s thinking of the value the trader adds in a market to the knowhow of the scientist, the accountant, the engineer, the boss. But the observation is a much wider one. Yet the very tyranny of central planning against which he set himself is alive and well inside organisations, not least government organisations and those that deliver their services.

 

Continue reading

Hypocrisy and the outbreak of crypto-socialism amongst our corporate overlords: Shock!

Mark zuckerberg tim cookIn an outbreak of cross-pontification Tim Cook thinks that Facebook and Google customers should be pretty suspicious of them because they collect a lot of data. Not to be outdone, Mark Zuckerberg thinks that Apple should cut its prices so it doesn’t make as much money. He doesn’t think that Facebook should cut it’s prices to its users – perhaps by paying them a cut of the revenue they bring in – to bring Facebook’s profit down to the kinds of reasonable levels he feels Apple’s profitability should be.

Still, it’s nice to see St Thomas Aquinas’s theory of the just price if not making a comeback, then at least poking its head over the parapet.

The interregnum at the Australian Public Service Commission

Many years ago now, Steve Sedgwick the Australian Public Service Commission explained to me that it wouldn’t be right to publish the hoard of information the APSC has on APS employees’ attitudes to their workplaces agency by agency because that would undermine the relationship of discretion and cooperation the APSC has with agencies.

Just thinking about that argument it falls apart it seems to me. If the rules are the results are published the APSC publishing the data isn’t a hostile act, it’s just process. Anyway, no progress has been made while this kind of data has been published in other countries routinely and the whole world gets the bug on open data.

Meanwhile I suspect the reports the APSC sends each agency outlining its performance are FOIable. If that’s true it’s all a bit of a house of cards waiting to fall. And all of a sudden five capability reviews appeared on the APSC website one Friday afternoon. The Mandarin covered the contents of the reviews which are quite candid about departmental shortcomings. Only two of the five capability reviews were recent. One was from earlier this year and two were from last year.

No press release, no date on the website. Why? Who knows, but here’s hoping the house of cards continues to collapse.