More metadata musing

In answer to my post earlier today about the data retention bill, frequent commenter Patrick Fitzgerald made a rather important point about the data retention zeitgeist:

Embrace the panopticon Ken, buy yourself a webcam, attach it to your head and stream live 24×7. Plus for good measure get a fitbit with GPS and stream that live 24×7 too – that way at least your friends will know as much about you as your enemies, and you may kill at least one enemy through boredom ;)

As it was, I had already made pretty much the same point earlier in the day on Twitter in answer to a tweet from FOI guru Peter Timmins linking an article about the US situation regarding metadata retention.


 

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Where are we with Geo-Engineering in 2014?

Geo-engineering is increasingly looking like the only politically viable way of averting temperature rises above 2 degrees in the coming century. This is for three interlocking reasons: i) Any mayor country can try geo-engineering on its own without permission from anyone else, meaning one does not need a world coalition sustained for centuries to have an effect; ii) It holds the promise of immediate relief because ‘natural Solar Radiation Management’, ie volcanic eruptions that add lots of light-reflecting particles into the atmosphere, were found to cause immediate worldwide temperature drops, which compares favourably with the lags of decades and centuries that hold for CO2 emission reduction plans; and iii) It might be exceedingly cheap compared to any policy involving emission markets. For instance, according to a 2012 piece by McClellan and co-authors, we could keep the planet at current temperature levels at a cost of merely 10 billion dollars a year by having a fleet of planes deliver reflective particles high in the earth’s atmosphere.[1]

Given that continued global warming is predicted to happen in the next century no matter what emission policies are adopted, geo-engineering by some impatient large country is starting to look nigh inevitable. I reported in 2012 on the research efforts funded by the Royal Society, the Gates Foundation, and others. You now have dedicated institutes on this issue (eg. http://iagp.ac.uk ), and lots of new proposed experiments. With a large glut of published studies in recent years, it is time for an update: how far are we now in the world of geo-engineering?

The honest answer is that the scientific community is pussyfooting around when it comes to geo-engineering. Field experiments are largely stalled as scientists are awaiting regulatory frameworks that will protect them from criticisms of other scientists and environmental groups. Proposed regulatory frameworks designed to deliver this, such as by Nordhaus and colleagues, find it hard to get much political traction because politicians seen to support regulatory frameworks themselves become targets for criticism, both by those who pretend there is no climate change and by those who insist there is climate change but who also insist on emission reductions as the only way to return to our current climate some 300 years from now. Voters who agree the world is getting too hot and who would like it cooled down in their own lifetime rather than that of their great-great-great-great-grandchildren are still too rare to bother with for politicians.

This does not mean there is a lack of bright ideas. The engineers looking into this really are a very creative bunch, talking about whitening clouds, aerosol sprays, reflective shields, and artificial trees. One new idea that I hadn’t heard before is to genetically alter our crops so that they reflect sunlight better than the current crops. I don’t know whether this has any chance of getting serious traction, but one has to admire the ingenuity of the idea. Still, ominously, almost no field tests or large scale long-term testing is underway as scientists are waiting for societal approval to go ahead. Continue reading

An overarching theory of sexual abuse scandals

Ross Douthat in the New York Times presents a compelling theory about the waves of sexual abuse scandals, from Roman Catholicism to Rolf Harris to Rotherham. Remember that these scandals are scandalous precisely because their perpetrators all got away with rape and abuse for long periods of time:

[I]nstead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it’s better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.

In Joe Paterno’s pigskin-mad Happy Valley, it meant a beloved football coach.

In status-conscious, education-obsessed Manhattan, it meant charismatic teachers at an elite private school.

In Hollywood and the wider culture industry — still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect — it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC’s Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art.

And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that both liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? | Jesse McCarthy at The Point

In this marvellous essay, Jesse McCarthy puzzles over why there is “a bloody knot in the social fabric that is as vivid in Ferguson, Missouri today as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem half a century ago.”

He starts with “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem”, James Baldwin’s essay from 1960.

It is hard on the other hand to blame the policeman… he too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed… He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is. … He can retreat from his unease in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.

“Want to be treated like men.” That wish, together with all its many ramifications, is in McCarthy’s view ground zero. Continue reading

The Pell Principle: Mission will trump morality

The current inquiry into institutional child abuse holds some interesting lessons about the nature of religion, which I’ll stay clear of here. But it also holds a larger lesson about the ability of organisations to act morally and to act properly in the absence of external regulation. This will not be news to a lot of people, but I see many others misunderstanding it over and over again.

It’s this: For most organisations, most of the time, mission trumps morality.

Any substantial organisation is run by people who spend a lot of time upholding its virtues and the value of its activities and people. They buy into its mission. They internalise its mission. And so they should. That’s how leaders get things done.

This leaves them terribly placed to decide how moral issues between the organisation and other parties should be resolved. Their first, second and third instinct is to protect the organisation.

That is why self-regulation is a bad idea when the stakes are high.

And for proof, you need look no further than Cardinal George Pell’s evidence to the child abuse inquiry. A man who runs an organisation (the Sydney archdiocese of the Catholic Church) devoted to moral questions, who has engaged intellectually on moral questions for most of his life – and yet when the chips were down, Pell admitted that his concern for the financial health of his church trumped any desire to provide recompense to child abuse victim John Ellis and others like him.

From the Sky News report of Pell’s evidence, which seems reasonably reliable:

[Pell] admitted the church didn’t deal fairly with Mr Ellis “from a Christian point of view”, but in a legal sense it did nothing improper.

Dr Pell said he was consoled by a legal ruling protecting the church’s property trustees from being sued.

The commission has heard the archdiocese of Sydney has property and cash worth $1.2 billion.

Mr Ellis sued the church over the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest between the ages of 13 to 17 in the 1970s, but lost the case in 2007 when a court ruled the trustees weren’t liable.

Lawyers disputed in court that the abuse had occurred, cross-examining Mr Ellis over a number of days, despite the church having previously accepted that it had happened.

Dr Pell said he regretted the action.

“I regret that. I was told that it was a legally proper tactic,” he said.

The church subsequently pursued Mr Ellis for $550,000 in costs, despite a psychiatrist assessing Mr Ellis as being in a fragile mental state.

What was going through Pell’s mind, you might ask. The answer is: his institutional mission, to ensure the success to the church. His moral mission was put aside.

You might think money is the point of it – that to adapt Upton Sinclair, leaders will not put morality first because their salaries depend on their not putting it first. And you may be right. I have my doubts. If you’re any sort of leader, salary is less important than success.

And if George Pell will put the mission first, most organisational leaders will do it.

A strong moral code within the organisation will guarantee nothing. After all, what group has a stronger moral code than the major monotheistic religions?

Self-regulation? Corporate social responsibility? Good corporate citizenship? In the clinches, most organisations will abandon or constrain them in order to preserve the organisation. Leaders will convince themselves that the wrong course is the right one, because the wrong course is the one that meets the organisational objectives. Sitting around the boardroom table, leadership groups will come to agree that weak arguments are strong ones, that bad behaviour is required behaviour, that wrong is right. That they are good people with strong moral codes in their personal life will mostly not matter.

Mission will trump morality.

Call it the Pell Principle.

PPPs 2.0: the presentation

Above is my presentation to the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society – the background blurb of which is here. You’ll find the first half of the presentation on the fractal ecology of public and private goods is effectively the same content as the first half of this presentation from late last year. However where the first presentation takes the introductory framework as a basis for talking about social capital, the same framework is used as a basis for sketching out a terrain for public-private partnerships. Anyway, I mention this to save you time. I’m not much of a fan of watching videos, as it’s more efficient to read something but in case you’re OK with them – here’s another. But if you want to read the ideas presented you can read them in very summary form in the column here. But I’ve also completed a draft paper on the whole thing. If you’re interested, please email me at ngruen AT gmail and I’ll send you a copy on which I’d be grateful to receive comments and suggestions for improvement.

 

Jeff Sachs’ ego to the rescue: or maybe not . . .

Jeffrey Sachs [Photo by World Economic Forum/ Flickr]“as much as I don’t understand it, Jeffrey Sachs really, really, really doesn’t understand it.” Nina Monk, author of The Idealist

“I don’t want to argue with you Jeff, because I don’t want to be called ignorant or unprofessional. I have worked in Africa for 30 years. My colleagues combined have worked in the field for one hundred plus years . We don’t like your tone. We don’t like you preaching to us. We are not your students. We do not work for you.” USAID head Pamela White to Jeff Sachs.

I just listened to yet another excellent EconTalk, this time with the author of The Idealist, which is about Jeffery Sachs’ efforts to end poverty and how they ran into well known problems. Problems that not only could have been predicted in advance, but problems that were predicted in advance.

I started tweeting words to the effect that “I’d always thought Jeff Sachs was a snake oil salesman”. Then conscience clicked in.  I thought I’d better check Troppo to see if I was right – as H.L. Mencken says “conscience is that little voice inside you that tells you someone might be watching”. In any event, I’m not unhappy with my response to Sachs before the data was in.

In many ways this story is of a piece with my dyspeptic take on Red Tape and Political Correctness.

One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. In the case of regulation, we really need the people at the coalface to be thinking about the efficiency of what they’re doing within a larger whole. It’s very difficult for the top, or the centre to get this to happen – as it has to happen at the periphery, but no matter. We’ll issue instructions.

Enough said – or enough said for now - I’m quite busy.

Predictions versus outcomes in 2013?

In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.

Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.

                 Failed predictions

The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.

What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading