Sunday, February 28, 2010

Breaking Through the Reality Barrier

It is one thing for information technology to recreate experiences as real as reality, but something else for information technology to alter reality. Yet an extraordinary talk by Professor Jesse Schell (a professor at Carnegie Mellon and owner of his own game development company) has got me thinking about such things.

In his talk, Professor Schell starts with all the recent developments that have recently broken through the 'reality barrier' between games and reality, e.g.: the wii. Developments he's happy to admit most people in the gaming industry did not foresee (especially the huge success of Facebook games). But then he talks about the future and that's when it gets really, really interesting. The future, of course, is already here, just not evenly distributed (as Gibson once said). One example he gives is the new Ford hybrid car. It has a 'virtual tree' in the dashboard screen (see image below), that 'grows' as you drive in a manner that maximises the economising functionality of the hybrid engine:

In other words, your real world behaviour starts to emulate the features of a reward-based, virtual world game!

Schell then proceeds to list all sorts of behaviours and experiences that could be tied to virtual reward schemes, ranging from shopping behaviour (obvious) to exercise behaviour (affecting insurance premiums) to your children's study behaviour (affecting their performance and your tax allowances). One teacher he mentions has turned his class evaluation form into a game-style scheme whereby students attain higher and higher levels the more 'points' they get: it has been hugely effective in improving student performance. As Schell says himself, we are only at the start of applying the insights of behavioural psychology and economics to these new hybrid, reality/virtual games and schemes.

And here's a thought he got me thinking: instead of penalty points for bad driving, wouldn't it be better if we gave out bonus points for good driving? Tied directly to insurance premiums?

Enjoy the talk (ht KK, of course):

Original here

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lots of Work, No Jobs

My company has just hired a number of graduates. I normally find the experience quite inspiring but this time I found it rather depressing. Not on account of the quality of candidates - which was as good if not better than previous years - but because of the quality of people we couldn't hire as we simply don't have enough jobs. I found it sad to see so many highly qualified, ambitious young Irishmen and women, who in any normal economy would be weighing up several job offers, but who instead are going for months without jobs to apply for let alone job offers. Sure it has always been like that - there are always more candidates than jobs on offer - but I have never before wondered what will become of so many able, qualified graduates: in the past there were always jobs for them somewhere even if we didn't have jobs for them. But not any more.

I think we can - we must - do better by the 2016 Generation. For starters there is lots of work to be done, but not enough jobs right now. The main constraints are customers, capital and cash flow. The last of these can be helped by lowering wages costs (though I suspect much of this has happened already in businesses that needed to do so). And frankly most graduates understand the importance of gaining experience in order to secure higher salaries. In terms of customers, once again there are lots of people with needs to meet (businesses and consumers) but limited means (budgets/incomes) for doing so. Lower prices can help to close at least part of the gap, which companies can afford if their costs are falling (as many are). Which leaves capital. But instead of ensuring the optimum flow of capital to businesses ambitious to hire and expand we get Anglo Zombie Bank, the biggest beneficiary of NAMA as it happens so far.

Of course, our graduates are a form of capital - human capital - the most important capital of all. But I wonder what will happen if the return on investment in third level education continues to provide such low returns to students, and to their parents who invariably fund much of it (directly and indirectly)? This is already happening in the United States:
In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.
I hope not. In fact, most of the young people I've met are quite sanguine about their situation and about the state of the nation generally, but I feel it won't be long before they turn angry at our country's profligate waste of an entire generation. I am there already.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Postponing the Future

It feels like the wheels are coming off the government's NAMA strategy. That's a double tragedy because a) the problems NAMA is trying to fix still need fixed and b) a lot of people - business owners in particular - need the certainty of a 'solution' before they can back on a path to recovery. That's probably one reason why Irish small businesses are among the least confident in the latest Grant Thornton IBR survey (graph compares confidence to the economic growth outlook).

Maybe make that a triple tragedy: because the foundations for sustainable, long term recovery will be laid down in the short to medium term as businesses (elsewhere) begin to cautiously invest in capital equipment, training and new staff. Except in Ireland it would seem.

But all is not lost. The same Grant Thornton survey shows that Ireland ranks number 1 among 36 countries when it comes to the percentage of privately held businesses saying they are focusing on new target markets in preparation for an upturn in the global economy (75% of all Irish businesses). Which makes a lot of sense, for as another study - by the IBM Institute for Business Value in this instance - shows, by 2020, the world will have 500 million members of its 'cosmopolitan elite' (including Ireland), and another 2.1 billion members of a burgeoning global middle class:

Ireland will get to the future eventually, even if 'regime uncertainty' continues to postpone the future for Ireland's hard pressed businesses and their employees.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Unhappy Anniversary

Do you remember where you were three years ago today: Wednesday, 21st February 2007? No, me neither. The main story on the cover of The Irish Times that day concerned a possible referendum on children’s rights, alongside a photograph of Ian Paisley flipping pancakes. And yet it was a momentous day in the history of Ireland, and in all of our lives as it turned out. Still can’t remember?

It was the day the ISEQ index, which tracks the value of shares on the Irish Stock Exchange, briefly surpassed the 10,000 mark, valuing all Irish shares combined at over €127 billion. Irish banks alone were worth nearly €60 billion at their peak. The ISEQ had never before risen so high in over 200 years; nor has it ever risen as high again since that early spring day just three years ago. But February 2007 didn’t just mark the peak in Irish shares; it also marked the peak in Irish house prices, which means that February 2007 was the month our wealth as a nation peaked. Perhaps it’s coming back to you now?

Of course, not every share - and not every property - has experienced the same fall from the peak. Some properties in Kildare have actually fallen much, much further it seems. Same goes for some banks, come to think of it. Somehow I don't expect we'll recover all the lost ground in the next three years, unfortunately.

Unhappy anniversary everyone.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Debt In The City

It wasn't supposed to end this way. 'Girl Power' meant having it all: the job, the shopping and the apartment. And it did - for a while. But the dream has become a nightmare for a generation of young, single Irishwomen, trapped in negative equity. That's according to a Research Technical Paper from the Central Bank on How are Irish households coping with their mortgage repayments? Information from the SILC Survey. Though admittedly the authors don't spell it out quite so starkly, but they do say this about the burden of mortgage debt:
More highly leveraged households also tend to be more often headed by females, by more highly educated heads and based in urban locations, relative to households facing lower mortgage repayment burdens. One adult households (either with or without children) also seem more likely to fall into higher mortgage repayment burden categories relative to other household types, while the same is true of households where the head of household is either single or widowed /divorced /separated.
Sex in the City has become Debt in the City for tens of thousands of singletons in our cities and towns. How did it happen? As I've observed before, the surge in household indebtedness was driven by rising female participation in the workforce. The chart below shows that it wasn't just married women who saw their participation rate rise during the boom, single women reached even greater heights:

So what is to be done? One obvious solution for over-stretched singletons is to get married - though the Central Bank researchers don't quite come out and say this. They do however show that married people have far lower levels of mortgage indebtedness and overall vulnerability than single people. There's only one problem: the percentage share of Irish females who are not married (single, separated/divorced, widowed) is returning to levels last seen in the 1920s and 1930s, as the next chart shows:

The same goes for men of course. But as I've noted recently, men are the new 'manority' and marriage is not something most of them are contemplating - or even capable off financially right now. Our grotesque love affair with property in recent years has ended in this: our young women and men are trapped in 'relationships' with debts from which they can't break-up. It wasn't supposed to end this way.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beyond the Euro

The trouble in Greece has everyone worried about the future of the euro. Me too. Still, maybe we need a little perspective: the euro is a teenage currency after all, and we all know how troublesome teenagers can be for their anxious parents. So perhaps the euro will muddle through and settle into a more mature adulthood like most teenagers? Sadly, somehow, I doubt it. It may be time to call in the social services and plan for a very different future to that intended by the proud parents.

What might that future be? Most assume a collapse of the euro and a return to the status quo ante or some variation on same. But in the midst of a global financial crisis with several more acts to follow (sovereign defaults, demise of the dollar as a reserve currency, floating of the renminbi etc) there may be a window of opportunity to go a different direction entirely. Perhaps we need a new global reserve currency, say: the Terra?

I meant to go to the Long Finance conference in London a few weeks back, but day job priorities prevented me. Fortunately the organisers have uploaded all the presentations to the Long Finance website - well worth a visit. Some of my intellectual heroes - Stewart Brand and Brian Eno - were participants. One of the most interesting presentations was by Bernard Lietaer who explains the idea of of a 'Trade Reference Currency' (TRC) to be called the Terra thus:
This TRC would be designed to provide three additional benefits: an inflation-resistant international standard of value, stabilization of the business cycle, and the realignment of stockholder’s interests with long-term sustainability.

This new Trade Reference Currency – whose unit of account could be called the ‘Terra’ - would be backed by a standard basket of the most important commodities and services traded in the global market (e.g. oil, wheat, copper, etc., and some standardizable services like international freight or telecom units.) Terras would be issued by a Terra Alliance as electronic inventory receipts for commodities sold to it by producers.

The cost of storage of the physical commodities would be paid by the bearer of the Terra (estimated at 3.5-4% per annum). This makes the Terra a 'demurrage' currency, which encourages its use as a contractual, planning and trading device, not as a store of value.
The idea of demurrage is fascinating as it is a form of negative interest rate (the storage cost), which would be deliberately designed to incentivise its use to fund long term investments. Lietaer doesn't see the Terra replacing other currencies - but possibly assuming a global reserve 'currency' (or unit of account) status. His and the ideas of the other contributors (e.g.: on long housing finance) - and especially Malcolm Cooper's paper on a long finance view of history - are fascinating.

As the Greek drama unfolds (and mostly likely expands) it would be wise to take a longer term view of the options for the eurozone (and the rest of the global economy) in the decades ahead. And we better not leave it too late: the recent BIS paper on The Future of Public Debt makes it clear that we are not merely experiencing temporary turbulence, but rather we are only at the start of a wrenching series of changes that will be forced upon us. If ever there was a time for long term thinking it is right now. Even if this is something teenagers rarely do.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Getting Started

I knew Israel had some positive things going for it, but this is amazing:
Israel's stunning performance in world markets is beyond argument. The country lists more companies on NASDAQ than China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and all the countries of Europe--combined!
Not bad for a country with just over 7 million people - or a little over a million more than the island of Ireland. How do they do it? I've pondered this before, and I think it is still a phenomenon we can learn from. I recently read a review of Start-Up Nation, which takes a look at what other countries can learn from Israel. Reviewer Andy Oram at O'Reilly Radar points out some of the factors the authors think other countries could emulate, with my comments on their application to Ireland:
  • A loyalty to the entire community that goes beyond personal success. The authors point out that, for all of Israelis' notorious fractiousness, they expend enormous effort helping total strangers. All of Israel is a single team, even a single family. (Obviously, this family feeling does not extend to non-Jews.) Israeli entrepreneurs who give talks abroad often play up the strengths of their country as well as their company.
    > I think we have the sense of shared identity in Ireland, though we talk ourselves down rather than up

  • A sense of dissatisfaction. To innovate, one must be convinced that things are not good enough the way they are now. For Israelis, this drive for change has both Biblical and more recent historical roots, but technology provides a new arena rewarding hopes for improvement.
    > I think we share a sense of dissatisfaction in Ireland, though too often we lean towards resignation than innovation.

  • A Do-It-Yourself approach to technology, which perhaps is one manifestation of the afore-mentioned innate dissatisfaction. The authors report that equipment purchased by the army is always being tinkered with. The same interest in taking things apart and jerry-rigging them extends throughout the culture.
    > I think we are good at playing with other people's inventions in Ireland and creating new things, not sure I'd go so far as to say we re-build them: too many poets, not enough engineers for that!

  • A culture of challenging authority. The authors point out that this is a deep cultural value (and like many before them, trace it partly to the Jewish intellectual tradition), one that is particularly hard to foster in countries with controlling regimes.
    > We are far more compliant in Ireland (though we like to think we're not): but the recent shocks to our faith in Irish institutions might make us more challenging. Breath in and ... hold.

  • A determination to succeed against all odds. Countries that get complacent and rest on their laurels--as most observers think North Americans are doing--eventually lose their privileged places. The authors highlight fascinating stories of Israelis keeping up production in the face of war, and of cheerfully taking on seemingly impossible challenges.
    > I think we're determined: our response to the economic crisis shows a shared willingness to work together (even if there isn't complete consensus on what to do).

  • Interdisciplinary agility. Israelis tend to learn many skills--partly to survive in the armed forces--and to form companies closely linking people with different areas of expertise. In an age where many challenges require mashups between disciplines, this imparts a strong advantage.
    > We have some of this in Ireland (our Leaving Cert is not as 'narrowing' as the UK's A levels for example).

  • A tolerance for failure. Like the Silicon Valley, Israel is a place where someone can start a company, manage it through bankruptcy, and then pick up to start another company. A single failure, the authors say, gives the entrepreneur a high chance of succeeding at the next venture. Even in the military, people are rewarded for tackling problems with creative intelligence--not so much for the ultimate success or failure of the attempt.
    > Absolutely not in Ireland's case - and it's probably getting worse ...

  • Providing young people with arenas to exert responsibility. In Israel, of course, this arena is its unusually unhierarchical armed forces (and people who don't do army service, such as Arabs and the ultra-orthodox, miss out on critical experiences). But other countries could find other ways to challenge youth in situations where taking charge is a must and where results really matter.
    > We do this in Ireland up to a point, not least because we have had a relatively youthful population for so long anyway. But some form of (voluntary) national service just might make the difference in the lives of young men especially.

  • A fruitful mentoring relationship between venture capitalists and new entrepreneurs. Injecting money into new ventures (as so many countries do) is not enough; the managers must be guided through the shoals of financial, technical, and human resource challenges. Israel set up a unique program called Yozma in 1993 to bring together all the necessary elements.
    > Er, no.

  • Government policies friendly to startups. Israel has a decidedly mixed history here. Even after making a historic turn away from government control and toward a free market, its environment is most helpful to computer and high-tech companies. There are certainly innovations in many other areas--notably agriculture--but the authors say these fields encounter hampering regulations.
    > I'd go for 'decidely mixed' in Ireland too.

  • A truly open-arms approach to immigrants, who bring not only fresh perspectives but a high tolerance for risk. Once again, of course, Israel's liberal attitude toward immigrants applies only to Jews (and a lot of haggling goes on around deciding who qualifies). Even for Jews, it can take a long time to assimilate waves of newcomers and turn them into productive employees. But countries that don't make it easy to set down roots suffer economically. Short-term foreign workers never form the sustainable innovative institutions that can be planted by truly committed immigrants.
    > Here I think we have pretty well emulated the Israeli model in Ireland.
Andy points out some traits unique to Israel that have taken their development in a certain direction (the predominance of the military sector to name one obvious one). But we have our own unique traits in Ireland that could provide the potential for a new age of enterprise in Ireland. The way I see it, we don't have much choice but to seize the opportunities we can.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

St Valentine goes Confucian

On the double-day that's in it, here's one guide to love Chinese-style (ht Steve Sailer). It's aimed at what the Chinese call the 'leftovers': men and women in the thirties who just didn't get around to marrying in their twenties. The Chinese are nothing if unsentimental about this sort of stuff. More Confucius than St Valentine to be sure. Still, if you're a guy with an Audi A6 there's hope yet ...

But if you're a single, Chinese male you had better hurry up: a surplus 24 million men will reach marriageable age by 2020 in China who will never marry thanks to China's one child policy and sex selective abortions which have led to a deficit in young women. One of those unforeseen consequences the rest of us may have to deal with in the decades ahead. And what if these men decide not to bother with China's rush to growth, becoming instead a generation of slackers and ladylike herbivores like their Japanese counterparts? Might a Chinese collapse be the biggest wild card shaping our future?

But enough already with the doom and gloom. 情人节快乐 - happy Valentine's day.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fiscal Cold Turkey

Apparently heroin addicts can become so drug dependent their bodies cannot withstand the shock of withdrawal, and failure to continue taking the drug triggers multiple organ failures. I just wonder how apt that analogy is to our governments' debt dependency today. As long as governments think that taking these difficult decisions to end the addiction will be easier in the future than it is today, they will never take the decision today. At the very least, there will have to be a sufficiently large bond market event to force the issue.
Dylan Grice
The quote is from a fascinating paper - Popular Delusions: Government Hedonism and the Next Policy Mistake - which spells out just how severe the sovereign debt problem has become for different countries. The chart shows the fiscal credibility gap for different countries, and it compares the primary balances governments should be running with those which they're actually running, to get a better feel for the challenges governments face in order merely to stabilise their on-balance sheet debt ratios.

Reassuringly, Ireland is not in as a bad a position as most other countries to the right of us in the chart (especially the UK). That's partly due to the decisions that have been taken in recent budgets, and to our more benign demographic outlook versus, say, Japan.

I believe Irish voters would rather take the foul-tasting medicine now than bequeath an even bigger mess to our children. Which is why ideas like an Irish Fiscal Policy Council, proposed by Philip Lane, makes a lot of sense. This chart from his recent presentation on the topic spells out the basic steps necessary to close the credibility gap identified by Grice:

Easier said than done given our stagnant and dysfunctional political system. But at least it tells us where we need to go. Pity George isn't here to show us how to get there ...

Friday, February 12, 2010

'Manority' Rights

I used to think that equality boiled down to a simple concept like 'the majority versus the minority'. But now I realise there is a third category: a 'manority'. What is a manority? It is a special measure of equality that applies only to men: and it isn't very equitable.

Take the CSO's latest report on Women and Men in Ireland 2009. We learn, for example, that the employment rate for women is lower than for men, and that's a bad thing. Then we learn that the unemployment rate for men is nearly twice that for women, and that's ... just one of those things. We also learn that women make up 57% of graduates, and that's a good thing. Then we learn that men make up 93% of all prisoners, and that's ... just one of those things. We learn that women make up the majority of those admitted to psychiatric hospitals, and that's a bad thing. Then we learn that men make up the majority of those who die from cancer, heart disease, accidents and suicide and that's ... just one of those things.

You get the picture. So has this provoked an outcry of indignation at the inequalities suffered by men in Ireland? That's a rhetorical question by the way. Of course not. Instead we get the standard indignation at the continuing inequalities 'suffered' by women in the form of lower wages (apparently the result of evil male employers), and their under-representation in politics and senior management.

The politics one amuses me. Women are the majority of the electorate in Ireland - and have been since a newly independent Irish Free State introduced universal suffrage in 1922 (six years ahead of their sisters in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK for that matter). In fact, women are the majority of the electorate in every democracy in the world. Yet women don't make up the majority of politicians even in the gender-nirvana of Scandinavia. Which sort of suggests that a) the gender imbalance in politics is not an issue for the vast majority of women, and b) women choose their political representatives on the basis of things other than XX vs XY chromosomes.

The under-representation of women in senior management in the private and public sectors is subject to the same forces. Women now make up the majority of the workforce in the United States. I expect they'll make up the majority of Ireland's workforce by the end of next year (and that, of course, will be a good thing). Will this translate into a majority of women in senior management at some future date? Here the outlook is less certain. Most women will want to have babies, in which case they will not be willing to put in the same hours as men do in order to progress to senior management positions (and to stay there). The opportunity cost is too high for many women.

On the other hand, having babies and opting out of employment for a time assumes an alternative source of income. Traditionally that used to be called a husband. That's a tradition which, if not dying out, is certainly under threat. For example, figures earlier this week showed that the marriage rate in England and Wales has fallen to the lowest level since records began in 1862:

The CSO does not publish the general marriage rate (GMR) for Ireland (i.e.: the number of men or women marrying per 1,000 unmarried men or women aged 16 or over), but I estimate that Ireland's female GMR was 24.3 in 2008, somewhat higher than the UK's female GMR of 19.6. We're about nine years behind the UK as that trend goes. Moreover, the marital status of Ireland's adult population is reverting back to what it was in the 1930s and 1940s. Back then, just over half of all women (and men) over the age of 15 was single according to census data. This plunged to just a third (34%) of Irish women in 1981. But by late 2009, according to data from the Quarterly National Household Survey, we were back to nearly half of all women (49%) being single. It will likely become a majority in the next year or two.

What is going on? Explanations vary. Charlotte Allen thinks we have gone back to The New Paleolithic, with a majority of women pursuing a minority of alpha males, driven by their innate hypergamy. Mind you, more cavewoman than caveman this time. In other words, we seen to be heading towards a sexual dystopia brought about by the pill, affluence and feminism. Others go further, and see the prevailing gender divide becoming a gender chasm, peaking in a misandry bubble as men become a repressed minority and turn away from the heavy lifting necessary to maintain the economy, society and civilisation.

Even some economists are worried. The monogamous family turns out to be the most efficient human institution yet invented for the raising of children and the propagation of the species. But our new era of 'blended families' will test unproven, possibly less effective alternatives:
Societies which adopt a belief system that supports the family are likely to outgrow otherwise comparable societies that do not. Our analysis predicts that, in societies with strong family-based religious norms, the family will be the dominant form of family life, whereas in societies in which family-centred norms are weak or not enforced, the fidelity family is expected to coexist with other family types.

It may not be a coincidence that virtually all the surviving world religions emphasise the centrality of the family. It will be interesting to see whether or not the family continues to have evolutionary advantages over other forms of mating when religious beliefs are weak and fatherhood uncertainty can be at least partially resolved through DNA paternity testing.
More immediately, if young men no longer feel that they are likely to marry (too many betas, not enough alphas), then they may simply become slackers, exacerbating the trend towards fewer men going on to third level, and higher male unemployment rates.

Which brings us right back to equality and all that. Perhaps in time the politically correct shades will fall from the eyes of our commentariat and they will see the disaster that is unfolding for men. They might even start to champion 'manority rights'. Though I have a terrible feeling it will be too little, too late when they do.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Front Line

The next best thing to asking consumers how the recession is affecting them is to ask the people who are selling to them. In fact, the ones doing the selling just might have a more realistic grasp of what's going on than those they are selling to.

Our latest survey of Irish sales managers and directors tells an interesting story - they are increasingly of the view that the worst is over in the Irish market, with recovery coming slowly but eventually. And one good test of their optimism - one in four sales managers expects to expand their sales team this year:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Opportunity Cost of Politics

There is an obvious economic explanation for George Lee's decision to throw his political toys out of the pram: the value of his 'assets' would have declined sharply by the time of the next election and he therefore decided to protect their value by returning to private life. His assets being his intellectual credibility and reputation (and the profile that went with them). He was finding that the opportunity cost of staying in politics was rapidly exceeding the benefit of same. That's one explanation anyway.

There is another, somewhat less 'economistic' explanation. Watching George on RTE last night I was struck by the emotional intensity with which he described is prior hopes and dreams upon entering politics. Which unfortunately stood in marked contrast to the decidedly less intense experience of life as an opposition backbencher. And unfortunately politics has become simply a contest of competing emotions - not of ideas or ideologies. Dalrymple, as always, puts his finger on it:
The cultural development in question is the systematic over-estimation of the importance not so much of emotion, as of the expression of emotion – one’s own emotion, that is. The manner with which something is said has come to be more important than what is said. Saying nothing, but with sufficient emotional vehemence or appearance of sincerity, has become the mark of the serious man. Our politicians are, in effect, psychobabblers because we are psychobabblers; not the medium, but the emotion, is the message.

... Of course, the emotion with which an utterance is made has always been important in our assessment of how much to trust or believe the utterer of it. But whereas emotional expression was once the servant of meaning, now it is the other way round: meaning is the servant of emotional expression.
To paraphrase Terence MacSwiney, it's not those who think the most, but those that complain the most, that shall prevail. But only up to a point. In the end, George Lee's departure represented a failure of imagination. A failure on the part of Fine Gael, obviously, but more so a failure on the part of George Lee. Firstly a failure to imagine what it was he was letting himself in for when he entered politics (surely his career spent interviewing politicians must have given him some insights?) A failure to negotiate a 'deal' with Enda Kenny before standing for election that he could have either insisted on enforcing or have legitimately walked away from if it was not honoured (but I don't sense there was one). And most importantly a failure to organise. George was (and is) a celebrity in the sense of being a one-man-band of energy, activity and opinion. But in politics that is not enough.

His biggest failure in the end was his failure to build an organisation and to channel the genuine hope and commitment of thousands of people who would have given him far more political clout than any front bench portfolio in opposition. It might even have been the catalyst for the political and economic transformation he seemed so earnestly to have wanted.

I just hope for him personally that his assets are not in negative equity by the time the dust has settled.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ban the Bike

The word freedom is no longer understood in Ireland. We have no experience of the thing, and we have almost lost our conception of the idea. So completely is this true that the very organisations which exist in Ireland to champion freedom show no disposition themselves to accord freedom: they challenge a great tyranny, but they erect their little tyrannies. "Thou shalt not" is half the law of Ireland, and the other half is "Thou must."
P. H. Pearse*
I wonder is there a deep, dark flaw in the Irish psyche that makes us behave so cravenly before authority? Some atavistic throw-back to colonialism, and therefore the fault of You-Know-Who? It takes a lot for me to give up hope, but yesterday, driving behind a car travelling at less than 30 kph on a nearly empty Dublin city street, did just that. The driver in front was, of course, making sure she did not exceed the new speed limit, and just to be doubly-sure she was driving at closer to 20 kph. Ferdinand von Prondzynski had a similar experience.

The new speed limit is, you understand, designed by a species of superior intelligence - called politicians - for our own good. In the press release accompanying the changes, Dublin City Council even claims to have science on its side:
A review of accident statistics for the Dublin City area for the period 1998 – 2007 reveals that 47% of fatalities and 24% of injured persons were pedestrians. Research indicates that the percentage of pedestrians killed when in a collision with a vehicle travelling at 50 kph is 45 % but reduces to 5% when the vehicle speed is 30 kph.
I find this wording somewhat curious. Firstly, we are given percentages not numbers (are we taking dozens of fatalities or thousands?), then it refers to 'research indicates' - in other words, it isn't DCC's research, it's someone elses. Okay, it is just a press release, so I went to their website to get hold of the review. I wanted to examine the supporting data and analyses that our moral and intellectual superiors had drawn upon before handing down their decision from Olympus-on-the-Liffey. And I found it. There's even a handy link on the DCC website to the full report on the new speed limits. It's a pdf, but be careful about your download limits. Especially as it's all of one-page-long ...

That's right: the daily lives of tens of thousands of Dublin city drivers are being made miserable by people who can't even be bothered providing the statistical evidence to justify their decision. Of course this isn't about science - or safety for that matter - it's about ideology. An ideology that wallows in an anti-Millsean ethos of 'the greatest misery of the greatest number'. And yet more evidence of the 'tyranny of experts' that we now suffer under, and not just in Ireland.

After all, if we were being logical about this, then we would ban cars completely from our roads and cities. Read the data above: 5% of pedestrians in collision with a vehicle travelling at 30 kph are killed. So what are our Olympian politicians saying: 'feck the 5%'? Surely a case for the next surviving victim of a road accident in our capital city to take the Council to court for its negligence? Such are the logical cul-de-sacs you end up in when politics is no longer occupied by the historic struggle between the champions-of-freedom and the champions-of-equality, but instead has been reduced to a sad, bureaucratic exercise in risk management. By so-called experts who, when the evidence shows that their laws don't work, simply refuse to reverse them.

But I have a simple suggestion for Dublin City Council. Inspired by Theodore Dalrymple's 'suggestion' to ban lampshades, why not go the whole hog and ensure that no cyclists or pedestrians are ever again threatened by the risk of motor accidents: and ban all pedestrians and cyclists from the city centre? After all, the majority of people travelling into the city do so by car (and there are even statistics to support this). It might not go down too well with those of a NIMBY (no-incinerator-in-my-back-yard) disposition, but I have a feeling it might actually be more popular than the current policy.

Luckily we still get to elect the people who dream up these policies, and I'm sure the car drivers of Dublin will use the next opportunity to let the 'experts' know what they think of them. So long, of course, as the experts continue to think it wise to let us do such a risky thing as actually choose our own government.

* for our younger readers, Pearse was the best Minister for Education we never had, see: The Murder Machine

Friday, February 5, 2010

Reality ... Only Better

I recently got Sky HD after some familial arm-twisting (admittedly just one arm ;-) Alas it does nothing to improve the quality of any of the junk that is on TV (and there's an awful lot of that), but watching the BBC's How Earth Made Us in HD was stunning. And I am looking forward to the sport.

HD and all that reminds me just how extraordinary are the tools and technologies we now have available to us to create and to delight. And we will do so profitably, even on our own little Innovation Islet. The exciting thing for me is that we are only just at the beginning of a new, global flowering in creativity fuelled by a combination of affluence and inventiveness. Just like in Shakespeare's time - as Paul Cantor reminds us in his insightful lecture.

If you would like to get a glimpse of what the next global flowering of creativity might look like, just check out this example of computer-generated (CG) animation (HT Robin Hanson). I was watching it for a few minutes (in HD, full screen mode on my Mac), thinking 'this is very nice but when will the CG stuff start?' Only to realise - O-M-G - that it was all CG, from the very beginning. As Hanson observes about it: 'If you doubt at all that virtual reality could really be as detailed and vivid as our reality, take a look'. Enjoy:

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.

HD version here

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

From Hope to Hype

I still don't get the iPad. Not the technology itself: it's just a bigger iPod Touch (and neat at that). No, it was the recent hype about the iPad that I didn't get. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Apple (I'm writing this on an iMac) - but not a 'fanatical' fan. I'm using Firefox as my browser (Safari is too restrictive), and I'm using Google's blogger to write this post. I suspect most people in the Apple camp like myself have a foot (or at least a toe or two) in a few other camps as well.

Undoubtedly the iPad will find a niche or two to exploit (Tyler Cowen thinks it'll finally make the eBook happen in our schools - which I for one would welcome). It might even bring about the paperless office: not by replacing paper but by accelerating the decline of the office as a place to work.

But the interesting thing is not the gushing praise that has greeted the iPad, rather it is the sense of ennui and disillusion that it seems to have provoked in some. Tim Leberecht goes so far as to link the disappointment in the iPad to the disappointment in Obama. He quotes one reviewer:
... the iPad is a lot like Barack Obama: Everyone was able to project their own fantasies and aspirations on a product with which they were mostly unfamiliar, only to sour on it once they realized that it did not live up to their impossible expectations. Only with the iPad it took about seven minutes for the disappointment to set in.
But he goes further: along with losing faith first in Western Civilisation and then in God, it now appears we are losing faith in technology:
Yes, the digital joyride has come to an end. The faith in smart technology, collective knowledge, and data-driven human reasoning has suffered severe blows of late. Neither did social technology unleash the revolutionary potential of the Iranian people after the election, nor did sophisticated financial instruments prevent the financial crisis or the Copenhagen Summit yield a meaningful solution for combating the climate crisis. Wikipedia has not made us wiser; conflicts remain unresolved; ignorance prevails – in spite of the social capital accumulated on social networks, time and place-shifting transnational hyper-connectivity, and design thinking.
An 'Age of Grand Disillusion' is upon us. But I think he goes too far: technology - even delightful, smooth, glossy, Apple touch technology - is just a tool. And we are still only learning to work with the tools Apple and others have given us in recent years. So it's too early to tell.

But I think disillusion is going too far: we have been caught up in our own hype cycle, always expecting the next new thing to be a revolutionary leap forward when instead it is a more modest evolutionary step. But enough evolutionary steps can add up to something quite revolutionary - like the emergence of the Noosphere that Teilhard de Chardin and others dreamt off. There are no certainties about the future - things could go well or badly as ably explored in the answers to the latest Edge question: 'how has the internet changed the way you think?'

But it's too soon to give up hope just yet.

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