Saturday, 14 September 2019

Why Suggest A Bridge Between Scotland and Ireland?

Popularity develops through the snowball effect and the bandwagon effect. Some things or people are popular because they're useful, solve a real problem or are widely appreciated for some intrinsic quality: the wheel, a rock song/group, the telephone...  But what if you have nothing genuine to offer? How do you create your own snowball and bandwagon effects out of thin air? 

You do what every snake oil salesman in the Wild West did, what Bernie Madoff did, what every religious sect leader has done, what reality TV show producers do - and what the likes of Farage, Johnson and Gove have done...

You create or 'boost' something hugely ambitious, unique, deceptively simple, vaguely plausible but not actually 'real' in the sense of being achievable or demonstrable. Something in which your victims can only have faith.

Committing to solve a really big, actual problem is out of the question. Firstly, it's really hard and will take a long time, because it involves changing actual behaviour and fighting inertia - the resistance to change. Secondly, it won't make you exclusively popular because you'll likely be competing with lots of others trying to solve the same problem. You won't stand out in the crowd. You won't capture peoples' attention.

And real problems won't capture your followers' imagination or their faith.

To make your victims cling to their belief for a long time, you also need a goal that’s really big and ambitious - because, if they go for it, a big project will commits lots of people, money and resources that can't easily be redeployed.

And if the goal isn't 'real' it can never quite be achieved or delivered or found (think the Holy Grail): the quest is never-ending. Once you’ve got your popularity snowballing it's just about the journey, not the destination. Nobody wants to stop believing (and spending). Negotiating trade deals is an endless process - the job of leaving the EU successfully will literally never be "done". There's no easy way to leave the cult. Inertia is now on your side!

Here are some examples of projects that were or are hugely ambitious, deceptively simple, vaguely plausible but not actually achieved or achievable that seem to have been conjured up to boost someone's popularity... You'll see that Johnson's proposal for a bridge between Scotland and Ireland fits right in - get that feasibility study started!
  •  Farage's decades long quest for Britain to leave the EU;
  • the 'Leave' campaigns, as backed by Johnson/Gove and Farage/Banks;
  • donate X% of your income for eternal salvation;
And finally, a word from the perpetrator of the biggest fraud of all time... (or is it?)...

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Which UK Government Policies Would Prevent Free Trade Deals?

We know that the Johnson regime wants a No Deal Brexit, and that Labour only opposes that subject to agreeing its own form of Brexit. But any form of Brexit would doom the UK to lengthy trade talks and related political turmoil in a situation where Brits can no longer live and work freely in 30 other countries or trade freely with the EU and other countries under EU free trade deals. A limited 'transition' or 'implementation' period merely sugar coats the pill: Brexit spells the end of freedom of movement for labour, goods, services and capital.

In this context, the prospects for new free trade arrangements are absolutely critical, and a key consideration is whether any UK government policies or party conference 'manifesto commitments' stand in the way of negotiations. 

I've started a general list below, including policies that could either directly prevent a deal being agreed and those that could discourage businesses from a partner country actually investing in the UK or undertaking trade anyway:
  • capital controls: the UK government might first introduce controls aimed at preventing the flight of funds resulting from policies that are not compatible with existing foreign investment or that will make the UK uncompetitive with other investment opportunities. Nationalisation plans would be a particular problem given the amount of foreign ownership of utilities and other formerly public assets. There must also be concerns that foreign nationals will want to get their assets out when they wish to leave (and before any capital controls come in). Capital controls are also part of a country's monetary armoury for numerous other reasons - especially when an economy is teetering on the brink of disaster. Capital controls are excluded in US free trade deals and would likely be contested in international arbitration, subject to the IMF's power to require them to safeguard its resources. We've heard nothing from Johnson's crew on this (although the Tories have been traditionally very reluctant to introduce meaningful constraints on dodgy funds flows and Johnson cares even less about the rule of law), but John McDonnell has tried to assure people that Labour won't introduce capital controls while talking about plans that effectively require them. Problem is that governments may not warn people before introducing capital controls for obvious reasons...;
  • breakdown in the rule of law - traditionally not associated with the UK, but that reputation has been vastly undermined by the antics of the Conservative Party during the past four years and particularly the Johnson crew during the Leave campaign and over the past few weeks. Threats not to implement customs checks or to withhold payments due to the EU under budgetary commitments are particularly concerning. Nobody wants a deal that involves constant disputes and endless international arbitration proceedings; and businesses won't trade in violation of terms where that lands them in hot water or isn't otherwise in their interests.

Clearly, any government also has to be careful not to lose sight of many other factors that contribute to people and businesses' assessment about the relative attractiveness of doing business in a country more generally - such as unusual or extraordinary taxes on income, property and transactions.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Latest Designer Drug: 1D10C

Drug classes A, B and C to remain
UK drug enforcement officials say a new drug has taken hold in Britain, pushing 'traditional' class A drugs aside.

Code-named "1D10C",  the new drug comes in powdered and liquid form, and can be administered through any external body orifice, with many even preferring to receive it in the form of inhalers, eye drops and ear drops, making detection almost impossible.

Effects include unexplained euphoria, self-confidence and loquaciousness - the tendency to be overly talkative.  

Side effects include paranoia, delusional episodes, lack of concentration, the inability to grasp complex problems, lack of empathy and poor verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

While not yet classified, officials have begun investigating the sources and usage patterns of 1D10C in Britain. Recent admissions of drug usage among political candidates has drawn officers' attention to their ranks, as well as individuals working in media, public relations and political lobbying organisations, as well as large political donors.

While declining to give further details or to be named, one senior investigator said, "We see the flow of political donations in support of projects that are obviously flawed or based on a mistaken understanding of how certain processes or industries work as likely indicators that this drug may be being distributed and abused in large quantities." She declined to say when the investigation would end, or the likely outcome, but one possible result would be a recommendation that the drug be classified in order to restrict its availability.

Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party declined the opportunity to comment.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Is BigTech Still Battling The Entire Human Race, Or Just Some Of Us?

Readers will be familiar with my view that we consumers tend to be loyal to 'facilitators' who focus on solving our problems, rather than 'institutions' who solve their own problems at our expense. Previously trusted service providers can also lose their facilitator status, and I'd argue that Facebook has already done so (owing to privacy, electoral and extremist content scandals) and Google is firmly headed in that direction (through behaviour incurring massive EU fines). Yet, despite announcements designed to suggest increasing transparency, it seems BigTech is actively resisting independent human oversight and the perceived battle between computers and the human race is far from over...

Part of the problem is that 'BigTech' firms still operate as agents of retailers and other organisations who pay them vast amounts of money for exploiting our personal data targeting advertising at us, rather than as our agents for the purpose of finding what we need or want while shielding us against exploitation. In fact, this is the year when digital advertising spend will exceed spending on the old analogue 'meat space' channels

Combine that exploitative role with rogue artificial intelligence (AI) and you have a highly toxic reputational cocktail - particularly because AI based on machine learning is seemingly beyond human investigation and control. 

For instance, Amazon found that an AI programme used for its own recruiting purposes was terribly biased, but could not figure out what was going wrong or how to fix it, so had to simply shut the thing down.  Alarmingly, that suggests other AI programmes that are already notorious for being biased, such as those used for 'predictive policing', are also beyond fixing and should be shut down...

Many BigTech firms are appointing 'ethics boards' to try to avoid their AI programmes heading in inappropriate directions. Trouble is, not only is there doubt about what data scientists might view as inappropriate (which drove the appointment of ethics boards in the first place), but these boards are also generally toothless (only CEOs and main boards can decide the actual course of development), and tend to be populated by industry insiders who sit on each other's ethics boards

It is unclear, for example, whether the recommendations of the ethics committee overseeing the West Midlands police 'predictive policing' algorithm will be followed. Meanwhile, 14 other UK police forces are known to be using such AI programmes...

Another worrying trend is for AI firms to prevent investors voting on the company's plans, using "dual class" share structures that leave voting control with the founders rather than shareholders. Lyft is the latest to hit the news, but other offenders include Alphabet (Google), Blue Apron and Facebook, while Snap and Pinterest give shareholders zero control. Those firms might argue that stock prices are a check in themselves. But the stock market and investor greed are notorious for driving short-term decisions aimed at only maximising profits, and even giant regulatory fines are subject to appeal and can take a long time to be reflected in share prices. Voting power, on the other hand, is more qualitative and not simply a function of market forces - and the fact that it is being resisted tells you it's a promising tool for controlling BigTech.

Regulation will also be important, since fines for regulatory breaches are a source of revenue for the public sector that can be used to clean up the industry's mess and to send signals to management, investors, competitors and so on. I'm not suggesting that regulatory initiatives like the UK Brexidiot ToryKIP government's heavily ironic "Online Harms" initiative are right in the detail or approach, but Big Tech certainly cannot keep abdicating responsibility for the consequences and other 'externalities' associated with its services and approach. There has to be legal accountability - and grave consequences - for failing to ensure that AI and the firms themselves are subject to human control.

I guess the real question might be: which humans? 

Monday, 29 April 2019

Are England & Wales Ready For A Hard Border With Scotland By 2023?

With Brexit madness in full flow the case for a hard border with Scotland by 2023 is also gathering momentum. Here's why...

If Brexit proceeds, the UK government believes the British economy will under-perform by about £15bn a year in terms of government tax receipts, meaning it will need to borrow more and more to maintain current spending. Even if you believe in unicorns , it's therefore likely that extreme pressure on public spending across the UK will mean declining public services and increasing misery for many. 

Against this backdrop, the economic concerns during the first Scottish independence referendum seem less troubling. After all, Scotland (population 5.4m) is larger than 7 EU member states and even if it's economy is more precarious than other small EU members, it might prefer the protection of the world's largest trade bloc to a flat-lining UK. This could also mean that qualms about accepting the Euro would fall away.

At any rate, Scotland now intends to hold a second independence referendum by 2021. As Brexit impact and uncertainty worsens, it is likely that bruised Scots will be more likely to vote for both independence from the UK and for membership of the EU.  The original margin against independence of 55:45 could therefore easily reverse.

Of course, the sensible option is to revoke the Article 50 notice and stop all this nonsense entirely, but British politicians are too scared of the fascists for that...

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