Raj Patel’s “Value of Nothing”

For various reasons I found myself with several hours on public transit and with Raj Patel’s fine book “The Value of Nothing” in hand. I really liked a few things about it. First, it’s a very readable summary of a lot of economic theories (and ideologies) that guide policies today. For a more mathematical treatment of these I really like Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” which is recommended by Jonathan Nitzan, another very interesting political economist who argues that money is the commodification of power, and makes the argument utilizing some interesting analyses of data.

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Thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

After a couple of recommendations from a couple of different directions, I read Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains”. It combines neuroplasticity research (which I read about in Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself”) with ideas about a literary, print-based culture versus an electronic media-based culture. The book was mentioned in Tapscott & Williams’s “Macrowikinomics” and in Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. Hedges also criticizes electronic media based culture and laments the death of print-based culture in his “Empire of Illusion”.

The basic argument of “The Shallows” is that the web is good for associating bits of information but print was good for deep reading, thinking, and contemplation. My friend Michael Albert focused on the attention span aspect of the argument in a recent blog post on ZNet: that attention spans decrease as online information flow increases.

Here’s a hopeful aspect: neuroplasticity goes both ways. If lots of internet use can reprogram us to lose our attention spans, practice thinking and contemplating can reprogram us to be reflective and thoughtful.

The other point that I’ve been thinking about is where Carr quotes Neil Postman, a very interesting writer on technology and society. On pg.151-2, Carr quotes Postman’s book “Technopoly”, who in turn was describing the key elements of scientific management. The six assumptions of Taylorism, or scientific management, as Postman writes – quoted in Carr:

“that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Carr uses this quote in a discussion about Google’s philosophy, and corrects the sixth assumption for the case of Google: “Google doesn’t believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms”.

This does take me back to Douglas Hubbard, who I mentioned in my post about Norberto Bobbio and democracy. Hubbard’s business book “How to Measure Anything”, is, if anything, an argument for good measurement and not bad measurement. His more recent book called “The Failure of Risk Management”, is even more explicitly a plea for using techniques that have some rigor and justification as opposed to subjective illusions of measurement and quantification.

What I wonder about though is, does even good measurement have possibly perverse effects? Does even good measurement crowd out important ways of thinking, like ethical reasoning or historical comparison? I am genuinely not sure about this point. Another question – if it comes to social conflict, can networked thinkers beat deep thinkers, or does it go the other way?

“Santa” Ford just stole 1000 jobs from the future

Yesterday’s headlines in Toronto newspapers were about how Rob Ford and City Council repealed the $60 vehicle registration tax. The Toronto Sun went as far as painting a beard on a picture of Ford, calling him Santa, and referring to the tax repeal as a christmas gift to Toronto. Another advance against the war on the car. Toronto’s progressive councillors, according to the reports, voted with Ford and apologized for implementing the tax in the first place. At the end of the reports, there was a statement about how Ford promised he would make up the $64 million shortfall in revenue without “major” cuts.

The things populist politicians promise – balanced budgets, reduced taxes, and jobs – are all in conflict with each other. A $64 million annual shortfall is enough to fund 1000 very good jobs. How much work gets done by 1000 full-time workers? How much does their spending affect the economy of the city? Ford has ensured either increased deficits (which means no balancing of the budget) or loss of services. By separating the tax cut from the service cuts or deferring them to the future, Ford has ensured that when the time comes to pay for these cuts, the people paying will have forgotten that it was “Santa” who forced the sacrifices on them. The Grinch is invisible behind the painted Santa beard.

Society pays for everything, one way or another. If it’s not taxes now, it’s unemployment now and broken infrastructure later. If Ford and the Toronto Sun can convince us that there’s a magical way to get something for nothing, they will end up helping us wreck the place we live in. In Toronto as in Canada, we are watching tomorrow’s problems being created, and the rest of the world could be forgiven for thinking that we are applauding.

Spinning the leaks

My daily routine these days includes going to the Wikileaks twitter feed (twitter.com/wikileaks), which took me to this story in the UK Guardian about how Saudi Arabia proposed an Arab force to invade Lebanon. The Guardian is definitely the best site on the Wikileaks, and for data in general – they have understood something about what media organizations should be doing and they are going about it, in ways that a lot of other outlets haven’t.

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Wikileaks Cablegate

The US Embassy cables put out by Wikileaks are not the truth. Even though I knew it, a part of me was disappointed at how ideological some of the cables were. Take #09TELAVIV1060, “Rep. Wexler discusses Iran with IDF Intelligence”. The entire discussion is about the threat posed by Iran to Israel. Even among themselves, even when they think their communications are secret, they engage in fear mongering. Much of the cables are this sort of exchange of opinions. It is only when these opinions are given to journalists at press conferences or in anonymous phone interviews to become “US officials said” that these kinds of speculations take on the appearance of facts.

For those paying close attention, the views expressed in the cables belong to the same world view that these same officials express in the media. Following events in Israel/Palestine without any access to any secret cables, one would be led to the conclusion that the US and Israel have the same kinds of obsessions (control of the region, Iran) with very minor differences between them (none of which differences benefit the Palestinians). So, when the Tel Aviv Embassy (#09TELAVIV1060) cables that “Rep Wexler stated that he expected Israel would be pleasantly surprised by the President’s acceptance of all possible options in regards to Iran”, it isn’t a big surprise.

At times, however, the cables do show that US diplomats sometimes have an accurate understanding of situations – which the US proceeds to not use. For example, #09ISLAMABAD2295, relating to the US desire to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s border areas. “Increased unilateral operations in these areas risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis in Pakistan without finally achieving the goal.” Of course, the US response since has been – increased unilateral operations in those areas, which have destabilized the Pakistani state, alienated the civilian government and the military leadership…

So, the data aren’t going to reveal that the US was actually trying to act benevolently in the world, nor that the US actually tells the truth in its dealings with its own public or with other countries. They aren’t going to reveal that US Embassies don’t spy or plot coups. Instead, they will show just what US officials have been up to, what they have been thinking, and what they have been reporting for years, most of which could be inferred by the effects of the actions and by reading between the lines of their stated claims.

Why, then, has the US (and Australia and Canada, with people like Tom Flanagan ready to make ugly statements on behalf of the powerful) seemingly up and lost its mind over this, with the suspected leak Brad Manning in jail with politicians calling for his execution and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on the run (with people like Flanagan flippantly calling for him to be killed)?

The claims that the information “puts people at risk” are preposterous and have been answered many times over (the people who show such concern over putting people at risk include those who ordered the mass murders that are recorded in the relevant databases). Should states be allowed to keep such things secret? Why? Because they know better than the people? If they do, shouldn’t our access to their secret data lead to us admiring and respecting them more? And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t they be able to explain why, give us the context we are missing? Or is the implicit argument that they are so vastly smarter than we are that we just can’t understand why they have taken these decisions – on our behalf? That is a pretty insulting idea, but without it, the case against the leaks falls. Either their decisions can hold up to scrutiny or they can’t. A look at the data itself is the best way (perhaps the only way) to see the falsehood of the “national security” pretense. The value of that line of argument depends on us not knowing and not being able to find out. One positive outcome of these leaks could be that more people don’t buy the “national security” idea as a reason we don’t have the right to know things.

But if it isn’t out of some kind of legitimate safety concern, why is the US and its allies trying to punish the publication of information as if it was a crime on par with their aerial bombings and financial destruction of economies? The indispensable Jonathan Cook writes that the fact that the leaks happened, as well as the content of the leaks, give the “impression of a world running out of American control”. I think the implications might potentially be even greater than that. What if these leaks set the precedent that governments cannot keep their information secret? That whatever they do, they have to do openly and under scrutiny? That data on their actions is going to be available and analyzed? A great deal of what the US has done that is revealed in these leaks (the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Diary, and the Cablegate Cables) after all, it has done openly and with the consent of at least a plurality of its population. So why keep some of it secret? Perhaps because it feared that if the information wasn’t secret, it wouldn’t be able to get away with it. That is an encouraging thought. Governments should fear doing things they can’t justify, and people should have the information to know what they are doing. If the US can take Wikileaks down and terrify others who might try the same, a very interesting moment will be lost. Defend the leaks and use the data.


I spent some time (and plan to spend more) looking at the Iraq War Diary data. My impression was that the redaction was excessive. The cablegate cables don’t look overly redacted, which is positive. I hope the unredacted data are released eventually. I am not sure about Wikileaks’s release strategy of a few hundred a day as opposed to the full dump. I understand that there’s so much data that it will be hard to do it justice, but given the intensity of the attack Wikileaks is under, I do fear that the full cables may not see the light of day before the US is successful in stopping it.