Forgetting things past

Under the GDPR, EU residents have gained several important rights over their data. (Privacy laws are weak in the US and non-existent in China.) 
 
One of them is the “right to be forgotten,” which tries to balance the right to privacy against the public’s need to know history. 
 
This post is not about these rights, but the actions that we can take to improve our remembrance of things past, i.e., removing details that might have been interesting for a few days or months but no longer matter to us.
 
As examples, consider emails you wrote to someone you no longer date, silly photos of events long ago, or tweets in reply to a once-urgent-but-now-forgotten conversation.
 
The main idea of deleting, cleaning or summarizing your past is not to whitewash it but to align with our natural tendency (or ability) to forget events (both good and bad) over time. This tendency is very useful, but it loses its power if our digital detritus is saved and shown to us (or others) when we (they) are looking for something else.
 
Even worse, the rise of artificial intelligence means that companies that are storing our data on various clouds (dropbox, iCloud, google drive, etc.) are increasingly likely to mine those data to build algorithms that they will use to make money.
 
Thus, in the past few years, I have:

(Note that I have kept copies of all these deleted items on a back-up hard drive — just in case — but I kinda doubt I’ll ever look at that stuff. Years ago, I threw away the negatives from a few thousand rolls of film I shot while traveling for five years. I’ve not missed them. I still have most of my travel diaries from that period, but I have no temptation to read the detailed scribbles of my 25-year-old self.)

My one-handed conclusion is that you should take control of your digital memory, first to protect yourself from the bots and second to free your memory to keep what’s really important. This control takes more effort than letting things pile up, but the resulting privacy and calm should make the effort worthwhile.

America’s Pravda

When I visited my father a few weeks ago in California, I was forced to listen to Fox “News” for more than the 12 seconds that I can usually stand. What struck me then was its relentless devotion to all things Trump and obsession with tiny slights that served Republican talking points (like four days of discussion of Jim Acosta’s refusal to give up the mike while asking Trump questions at the press conference). 

What I didn’t realize is how far Fox has strayed from any objective definition of news-reporting or journalism. As this VOX video shows — with clips of Fox personalities — the channel has basically morphed into a full time propaganda machine for the Republican Party. Yes, that may be profitable, but it’s also horrible to see tactics borrowed from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and the Soviet Union’s Russia’s Pravda (un-ironically meaning “truth”) in the US. 

Watch the video and tell me that you’re ok with that. (If you are, then I have a few dictators whose prisons you’d enjoy.)

My one-handed conclusion is that a few too many Americans seem to prefer delusion to truth and tribal loyalties to national strength. Sad.

The frumping of Trump

Trump is an egotistic windbag, and his lying incompetence is catching up with him.*

This retired military officer calls his “march to the border” a political stunt that risks the military’s integrity and loyalty to the Constitution.

The Trump administration tried to bury a new, massive report by 13 US government agencies  on the current and future damages from climate disruption by releasing it on Black Friday (when most Americans are shopping or recovering from overeating on Thanksgiving). Trump thinks that cold weather “disproves” climate disruption (like he thinks that people like him rather than his money), but this report buries his ignorance under 1,600 pages of science and data. Go read it — and then get angry that America’s “leader” cares more about golf than defending the country.**

My one-handed conclusion is that the best defense against lying deception is truth, facts and protest. Have you called your representative lately?


* I’m usually polite about leaders, but Trump is such a failure that I cannot see any redeeming qualities or mitigating actions. One reader of my newsletter was not happy with my criticism:

I suggested that the Swordmaiden unsubscribe as she (like her hero Trump) does not seem to engage in critical thinking. Related: Russia (as a dictatorship) benefits from confusion and disinformation, much as the U.S. (as a democracy) suffers. Support truth.

[I just did by subscribing to the New York Times (over 3 million digital subscribers), Atlantic and Guardian (they just hit 1 million subscribers). Good journalism needs your support.]

** Speaking of not caring about people, I’m pleased to see the wheels falling off Facebook, as Zuckerberg’s business model of using your data against you and hiring sockpuppets to attack his critics (via… yes, “fake news”) backfires. I hope that the UK’s seizure of internal memos reveals more Facebook manipulation, if only to force people to recognize it. The result? “Zuckerberg’s could be the first in history to collapse simply because its citizens logged out.

Everyone is trading your data

I went to dinner with some friends in San Francisco about a week ago. In the process, I learned a little more about how our data are tracked, traded and used to solicit our time and money.

The key is that my friends used “car share” services to get to and from the restaurant. (In the past, we might have walked to a local restaurant, but “cheap and seamless” makes it very easy to “tap the app” and get a ride.)

At one point in the past, I had Uber on my phone, but I had never used Lyft deleted Lyft’s app off my phone months ago. so imagine my surprise when I got this email the next day: 

So there are two possible reasons why I got this email from out of the blue the Borg:

  1. Some remnant of the deleted Lyft App on my phone was tracking where I was going and matched my physical presence to that of the Lyft driver.
  2. My location was matched with a Lyft driver, which then triggered an “account update” email to me that I had never signed up for.

I think that #2 is more likely, but both options are bad in the sense that they reveal the degree to which Americans (without knowing it) and Chinese (often knowing it, but not caring) are being tracked in their daily movements. (Tracking is probably also happening in the EU, but  GDPR makes that harder as well as illegal.)

How pervasive is this loss of privacy and gain in stalking? Read this article outlining how our data are collected, traded, aggregated and used to advertise to us. Then read this one on how “restaurant waiting list” apps are being used to record what we eat (digital menus), with who (location data!), and for how much (credit card bills). Finally, read this industry profile* of how a “decentralized internet” will weaken aggregation services and  platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that track our browsing, logins, friends, finances and so on.**

My one-handed conclusion is that companies and governments are collecting far more data on your location, friends, activities and (probably) thoughts than you will ever suspect. The panopticon is now.

Postscript: Just a few days ago, I bought a swimsuit in a used-clothing store in Southern California. When I wanted to pay, the cashier asked me for my mobile phone number. “Why? You want to call me in the Netherlands?” “No, don’t worry,” he said. So I guess that the NSA, Facebook and Amazon are going to have to wait a bit longer to know what color swim trunks I wear.


* If you want to give them your identity; for some reason, I read it without signing up.

** I was annoyed to hear Mark Zuckerberg say “Now we’re going to change Facebook’s whole mission, as a company, in order to focus on [more community and connection]” as that’s a lie. Facebook, like Google, is an advertising company that makes 90+ percent of its revenues from advertisers who pay for access to your personal and “community” data.

Are class and country similar?

Maybe yes, maybe no?
The lower classes are poor in the sense that they are always at risk. A lower income country… puts citizens at greater risk.
The middle classes are stable. They control where they live, are insured against risk, and plan vacations and retirement. A middle income country… spends enough to reduce crime and effectively regulate, but citizens know they need to take care of themselves.
The upper classes are rich in that they do not need to work but choose what to do. An upper income country… treats citizens well and secures them against (most) poor choices.
Yes, it’s obvious that countries contain a mix of income classes, but isn’t it also obvious that income classes mix via work, daily life and/or family and friends? But it’s also true that lower and upper income countries can talk past each other in the same way that upper and lower income classes can, so that’s still a set of parallels.
My one-handed conclusion is that income changes your choices and risk-vulnerability, without necessarily helping you understand how people in other classes (or countries) make their choices.

Our new cold war

I grew up in the 1980s at the height of Reagan’s arms race with the Soviets, wars in Central America, Iran-Iraq and Afghanistan, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed “the other” as greedy capitalists or colorless apparatchiks (depending on what side of the Wall you were looking at). 

1989 marked the beginning of the end of that Cold War, with the 1991 dissolution of the USSR as a definitive end point in the rivalry between capitalism and command-and-control economies. Capitalism dominated the 1990s nearly everywhere (Cuba, Ethiopia and North Korea were a few exceptions) as the Chinese, Russians and many other “Marxist-Leninist” political systems gave more space to free markets while withdrawing from state capitalism.

Improvements in living standards helped many people (and especially the poor) who had suffered the consequences of dogma, but these results did not last very long or accelerate everywhere, as new problems emerged. To understand why, I need to introduce a framework.

In 2006, Douglass C North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast published “A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History” [pdf], one of my favorite papers (later expanded into a book) on political economy. In it, North et al. explain two different political-economic equilibria. In a “natural state” a “limited access order” persists in which political power is used to create economic (monopoly) power and thus rents (super profits) to those lucky enough to control such economic entities. Citizens, workers and entrepreneurs suffer in these circumstances from shoddy goods, low wages, and a lack of opportunities, respectively. (This system is also known as one of crony capitalism.)

In the other equilibrium is an “open access order” in which political and economic power are separated, meaning that someone with economic power cannot use it to gain political power (and vice-versa) due to a robust set of institutions that promote competition rather than cronyism. Open access orders are responsible for strong economic growth and legitimate political rule because those with good ideas are able to prosper while idiots with famous last names cannot get ahead. Only a handful of countries have strong systems of open access because it’s very tricky to break the “iron grip” of politicians on commerce and businesspeople on politics. (North et al. hypothesize that a transition might occur when rulers decide that rules are a good way to protect their wealth from their greedy successors.)

This paper has helped me think about governance and markets for several years. It explains why Trump — a fraud and cheat — is so dangerous as a leader: He uses his political power to enrich himself and his cronies. The paper also explains the “interesting” struggles in Russia and China between  those newly rich who want to keep their wealth and those with political power who want to take it. Putin has returned to its natural state after the failed liberalizations of the 1990s. Xi has welcomed the rich into political cooperation but also strengthened State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) against domestic and foreign competition.

So these ideas lead to my point of this post, i.e., that we’ve begun a new Cold War between populists who favor limited-access capitalism (state-led cronyism) and liberals who favor competitive, open access capitalism. On the populist side we have the corrupt governments of Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, China, Brazil and most of the world. On the liberal side are Scandinavian countries, Singapore, and Canada where markets are (mostly) free and fair. In the middle are countries that are advancing (the Baltics, South Korea, Germany), falling (the US), or struggling (Mexico, southern Europe, et al.).

My one-handed opinion is that populists will continue to tell citizens that they are “the best” and foreigners (and their “unfair trade”) are dirty while those same “leaders” enrich their cronies and destroy national wealth while liberals struggle with citizens mislead by get-rich fantasies promulgated by insta-celebrities and populist propaganda. Although I am sure that populists will impoverish citizens, I am not so sure what will happen when citizens see past the lies. Will they revolt as the French did in 1789 and the Romanians in 1989? Will they attack foreign scapegoats? Will they just get poorer? No matter their action, I know from North et al.’s framework that populism will ultimately lead to economic stagnation and a further separation between the haves and have-nots. Sad.

The value-price gap

I often read or hear journalists, economists and just regular people discussing an industry’s importance in terms of its annual turnover, share of GDP and/or the total capitalization of its major companies. 

These price measures are useful for making “objective” comparisons, but they are misleading if one wants to think of the industry’s value to individuals or society. (Economists say that “consumer surplus” rises as the  gap between value and price increases.)

As a simple example compare the price that you pay to the value you get for gas, electricity and/or water. For me, value is a huge multiple of price for these services. I pay about €1/day for gas and electricity, but I’d be willing to pay 10-30x that price if I was deprived of heat and power. For water, I pay a flat charge per month (!), but I would definitely be willing to pay 10-50x the €2/1,000 liters that metered customers pay. (Assuming we use 50 liters each/day, that’s €0.20/day, so 50x would be €10/day.)

Turning to other industries, you can see a similar huge gap between value and price for food, drink and airline tickets but much smaller gaps for, say, restaurant meals, hardcover books or university tuition. In some cases (bankers, lawyers, social media, insurance and taxes — a huge share of which goes to the military and special interests in the US) value is often below price, but we are often unable to avoid such “charges.”

My one-handed conclusion is that we should think of the value of goods and services rather than their price when thinking about purchases but also (and especially) when making political decisions regarding the relative importance of  industries.

Are students smart consumers?

The relentless rise of university tuition and fees has depleted the savings of parents and left many students indebted. In many analyses (and my opinion), these higher costs have brought not better education but better amenities (housing, gyms and other playthings) and more bureaucracy

This problem is not going away soon in the US because most “solutions” call for increasing subsidies rather than limits on tuition. Here in the Netherlands the problem is smaller because the government gives big subsidies to universities in exchange for price caps. (We charge €2,000 on top of the basic €2,000 per year that most students pay, i.e., about 10 percent of the cost of a similar education in the US.)

But a lack of progress on costs does not mean there cannot be more progress on benefits or — as the English would say — getting more “value for money”.

I’ve already written about the problem with masters programs that advertise lots but deliver little, so I’m going to start there, as I continue to have conversations with my former students that go like this:

Typical Alumni: So I dropped out of that masters program.

Me: Why?

TA: The courses were not what I expected; they want to lecture you on facts that you need to memorize instead of discuss the topics; I can’t get a supervisor for the topic I want; etc.

If you want reality and hard work, then take the red pill. If you want to continue with idle ignorance, then take the blue pill…

Me: Well that’s why I told you to take a few years off, to discover what you want and learn more about the world. Then you will be ready to choose a program that fits your experience and goals. Then you will challenge the oversimplifications put out there by professors who have never worked outside the academic environment. Then you will be a critical consumer who demands time and effort in proportion to the time and effort that you’re putting into this program. Many students only want a piece of paper, and many programs deliver that, but if you want to learn, then you need to tell your professors that you want more — that you want what the marketing people promised: A first-class education. /rant

TA: Oh, that sounds like a lot of work.

Me: Welcome to the real world, Neo.

My one-handed advice is that adulthood is more rewarding to those who put in the work. Those who do not risk a life of passive frustration. Learning means mistakes and frustration, but so does dating: If you want to find the right partner (job, degree), then you need to look around.

Liberalism or misery?

I have read The Economist since 1989, and the past 30 years have been good for its mission of promoting liberalism (i.e., the rights of individuals to decide their destiny without impinging upon that of others as well as the value of promoting diversity and competition in the search for “truth” and innovations that will promote the general welfare) and thus for humanity’s progress, but this progress and those ideals are under attack.*

In this week’s issue, TE’s cover article says “Success turned liberals into a complacent elite. They need to rekindle their desire for radicalism.”

You should read the whole article, but I am going to give my own reasons for the importance of this mission  because (1) I have supported this mission for decades and (2) everyone needs to consider the implications of life in a non-liberal world.

First, I am a (classical, not American-style) liberal because I am aware of my limited knowledge and desire for freedom, and thus willing to assert the limits to others’ knowledge as well as their right to be free of my influence. I have for years collected examples of where “power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely,” so I am humble ab0ut the potential for top-down “solutions” and fearful of the tendencies of (so-called) leaders like Trump, Putin, Orban and Erdogan as they rally their followers to smash various opponents of the majority. (Here’s a paper on aid failure; here’s one on how groups cooperate or not.)

Second, I feel as if we’re in an era that most resembles that of of 1920-1933, when popular misery supported the rise of fascists of the left and right, as well as populists who promised easy answers to tough problems but ended up inmpoverishing or killing their followers while immiserating millions of defenseless and vulnerable minorities. The strengthening currents of authoritarianism dressed up as nationalism or, somewhat more transparently as majoritarianism, not bode well for our species. This article, for example, explains how “China and Russia are very different powers with different strategies, but they share the objective of targeting free and open societies to make the world a safer place for authoritarianism.”

I am writing this from Madrid where two artistic exhibitions have been coloring my thought. First, there is an exhibition of Russian Dadaist arts, which date from the 1920s and mostly highlight the ridiculous situations that Russians found themselves in during the early years of their revolution, which turned from proletarian optimism into fascist slaughter, starvation and terror. The second images are of Picassso’s Guernica, which he painted in 1937 in reaction to the  firebombing slaughter of innocent civilians by Nazis aligned with Franco. That painting, which is credited with “highlighting the need to forever remember and prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians,” seems remarkably relevant right now, at a time when Assad is barrel-bombing innocents and Aung Suu Kyi sits on her hands as Myanmar’s army slaughters innocent Rohinga citizens. I could write more about Venezuela, Turkey, Nigeria, and other places, but you get my point.

Liberalism as a philosophy is simple. It dictates humility, diffusion of power, and cooperation, but these ideals are unpopular with people who feel threatened and politicians who promise easy fast gains.  Sadly, those groups are ascendant as they were in the 1930s, and they do not yet see the obvious connection between their simple-minded, zero-sum view of the world and the obvious fact that attacks lead to counterattacks, and thus cycles of righteous conflict. (Check out Israel and Palestine for a long lesson in that futility.)

My one-handed conclusion is that our turn from faith and practice of liberalism will promote intra- and inter-group conflict at a time (climate disruption) when we should be joining in efforts to protect ourselves from our collective mistakes. Sad.

Addendum (20 Sep): This article is worth a read: “China and Russia assessed that Western liberalism and freedom undermine authoritarian rule. Indeed, many Western policy makers saw this as a desirable side effect: It may be good news for the Chinese and Russian people, but it is bad news for their regimes. And so, China and Russia began to push back.”


* I forgot to add a comment on how US politics has played a major role in this deterioration. In 1989, the Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact countries left Soviet influence. In 1991, the USSR itself fell apart, freeing the Baltic countries to pursue their freedoms while leaving most of the other dozen republics to struggle with reform, corruption and authoritarianism. These moves were helpfully supported by George HW Bush as well as Clinton, but the lack of an “external enemy” led Republicans (under Newt Gingrich) to turn to dirty politics as a means of gaining domestic power. Those shenanigans (including the impeachment of Clinton before the House) previewed the gridlock that plagued Obama’s years. Perhaps the worst “luck” was the (fraudulent) election of George W Bush in 2000, which gave power to an incompetent who invaded Iraq (for no good reason), failed the people of New Orleans after Katrina, reversed progress towards a global agreement on climate change, and fueled the economic bubble that led to the Great Recession, which hurt the average person but protected bankers from their own failures. Obama did a heroic job with the shit-sandwhich he was given, but the Republicans spent all their time undermining him rather than helping the country and its vulnerable people. Sadly, their strategy enabled the election of Trump, who has got to be the worst person ever to sit in the White House (and I’m including Jackson, Nixon and Bush 2). Given the current clusterfuck in the US, I am sure that we’ve yet to see the worst of Trump’s presidency. I certainly hope that the damage is not too deep and that those responsible are punished, but that justice will only recover 1% of the damage Trump and the Republicans are doing to the US and the world.

Burning man’s #metoo problem

Burning man opens its gates today to ~70,000 burners and virgins, eager to express themselves, participate and enjoy the dynamics of one of the world’s most inclusive, radical and innovative communities.

Many people are changed by Burning Man, the vast majority for the better but some for the worse. As a glass-half empty kinda guy, I want to talk a about Burning Man’s constitutional failure to protect the innocent.

To put this in context, consider Burning Man’s 10 Principles, most of which boil down to “let everyone do what they want, no matter how weird you might think it is.”

B.E.D. has the right idea.

But these ideals of “radical inclusion” do not touch on the most important element of freedom. i.e., freedom from being harassed by those “radically” photographing, approaching, and touching others without their consent. Assault (menacing approach) and battery (actual physical contact) are, of course, banned at Burning Man in exactly the same way that they are banned in the “default world,” but they are not explicitly called out as inappropriate in the 10 Principles, which is why there have been more reports of sexual harassment, unwanted groping and rape at Burning Man.

Most Burners are aware of these issues, and the Bureau of Erotic Discourse (B.E.D.) has been active for years in promoting consent before engagement, but those efforts have not been adopted into the 10 Principles that are plastered all over Burning Man, featured prominently in the handbook sent to all ticket buyers, and so on.

My one-handed conclusion is that the Burning Man Organization (the Borg) must revise its constitution to add an 11th Principle: “Consent is more important than your radical expression, so ask first and anything other than Yes means No.”