Dogs, ducks, and sales tax

January 20, 2013

Herewith some meanderings about transparency, evil, and search engines. Only connect, as Goethe said. Or was it E.M.Forster? Better Google it.

My latest Mastercard statement (patience, dear reader) got me fuming. It had a whole bunch of “foreign transaction” fees – 2.75% each. Never seen that before. My first reaction was to start thinking about getting my card from a different bank. However, it seems that actually this charge was always there but bundled up inside the exchange rate quoted. A change of legislation now requires card suppliers to explicitly specify the fee, separately from the rate applied. So that’s good isn’t it? A better informed consumer has more power.

Part 2. On my latest US trip the sales tax thing bugged me, as it usually does. An item is labelled as $7 in the store. You are just getting the exact notes out when the store chappie says “seven dollars forty four please” and suddenly you have another three ounces of coinage. When you tell them that in the UK the tax is already in the price, they are generally mystified. When they do understand, they will say that the UK method sounds like a bad idea. You see, they want you to know that they are charging you only seven dollars;  its the government that is charging you that forty four cents, buddy. Just remember that next time you vote. So that’s bad isn’t it? I just want to know the real price please. Whoop, whoop, personal inconsistency alarm

Part 3. Read article in Observer today about Google and the future of search. Bit of a puff piece really, but never mind. Towards the end the article there were links to a couple of alternative search engines which I hadn’t seen before. One is Dogpile. Lovely name, nice look, but seems to be just an aggregation of other engines. The other is DuckDuckGo . This is a v.interesting beast. They make a big thing of (a) not tracking you, or passing on your search terms to the websites you click on, and (b) not filtering and ordering the results you get based on your location and search history. You can read about the filtering issue here. With Google, you live inside in a search bubble fitted around yourself; different people will get different results. So… this is good, isn’t it, because Google are efficiently giving you what you want ? Or…. maybe this is bad, because prejudices are re-inforced, and we don’t know how we are being manipulated?

Part 3a. The comment stream after that Observer article has a bi-polar argument about whether Google is a visionary force transforming our world, or just a bunch of good old fashioned cynical capitalist bastards, manipulating what we do to make money. Hmm. Both and neither I think. There are much easier ways to make vast amounts of money, so cynicism doesn’t look like the right explanation. I think folks at Google really do want to do groovy and visionary and positive things, and they also really do want to make money out of us. Both at once.

The Internet joined up all the pipes. The Web set up taps that could run water from anywhere. Yahoo and Google ran water through all the pipes. The world seemed transparent. We could live in the whole world at once. Google said “don’t be evil !” and lo, there was a brave new world.

Too good to last of course.

New Year Mutterings

December 31, 2011

Another year is racing past the finishing post. Queenie’s Birthday Honours List  is out.  Not bad for science overall, with  Knighthoods for selllotape and pencil heroes Geim and Novoselov.Weaker than usual for astronomy and particle physics. I could only find an MBE for Derek Raine – well deserved, but awarded for services to education, not science. (Embarassing note : in the original version of this post I had some others but thats because somehow I had downloaded last year’s list as well.. Doh.)

Of course I have the usual confused mixture of approval and discomfort. Its good that public service is recognised; the MBE seems particularly important, as it rewards those all the way up and down the social tree, rather than just giving an extra bauble to those already at the top of the tree. But on the other hand it seems a throwback to a fusty and repressive past. Knighthoods, Orders, Empires ? The nobility only exists because a thousand years ago some people were better at bullying, greed, and violence than others. But hey ho thats the way of the world. At least now we have community workers, and they can be valued and rewarded. With a medal. Not a banker-style bonus of course.

I guess these thoughts are sharper than usual as the world is in a strange state. Europe and America about to plunge into recession again. Ordinary people in the Arab world and in Russia openly challenging their rulers. Tea Party nutters showing no sign of backing off.

I find myself more confused about politics than ever before. Communism failed and real people didn’t want it. But now Capitalism is failing too. Is there a genuine Third Way ? Maybe what we want is actual genuine Free Enterprise Capitalism, as opposed to the fake Capitalism of the last thirty years. Can we in fact allow people to trade freely, without the need for “trade agreements” stacked in favour of rich countries, invasions to control resources, and the IMF dictating to elected governments ? Well ok, a chap is allowed to dream at Hogmanay.

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. State investment in science and technology makes rational sense in an imperialist economy. Its not clear what would happen in a genuine free market system.

Oh. On a cheerier note, I just passed the fifth birthday of the blog !


Open the borders

August 11, 2009

Open source culture will destroy the nation state. Maybe.

I am reading Wikinomics, a book by Tapscott and Williams about how the open source approach is changing business culture and economics, not just in software but in many other areas. I just read a section which discussed the common complaint of critics that open source culture is a new kind of socialism, inimical to free enterprise and the profit motive. They interviewed Linus Torvalds, who said that the opposite was true. Linux, he says, is like the road system. Once it exists, it is much easier for people to form businesses and make money. It makes economic sense, even for competitors, to develop shared infrastructure.

Using the road system as an analogy sparked a thought in me.  Road systems are normally built by the government. We live in nation states where public goods are provided by the state, and free enterprise thrives on the back of this free infrastructure.  When we talk of “socialism” we normally think of what is really state socialism, where the number and degree of such state-provided public goods is maximised, and the state control of behaviour is also maximised. In our more typical modern mixed economies, state-provided goods are less extensive and we have partial freedom. Production of public goods is resourced by financial taxation, in which the citizen has no choice, and implemented by a professional civil service.

In open source culture however, parties with common interests come together by choice and develop shared goods. Note that these days “open source” does not mean thousands of amateurs in their bedrooms doing stuff for fun. It means staff at  IBM and Sun spending a percentage of their time working for Linux or Apache or Python as an approved activity. So production of public goods is again produced by taxation, but its taxation of effort, and the corporations taxed have a free choice about how much to put in.

Possibly more importantly, the communities formed, and the public goods constructed, do not follow national boundaries. They are horizontally global and vertically shallow. Like multi-national corporations, they begin to make nation states seem irrelevant; but the structures they can form are much more fluid than those rigid corporations.

You can drive for days across the USA without border controls or changing money. The same is now true in Europe. A short while back I went to a meeting in France. I flew to Frankfurt and caught a train to Strasbourg. It was only on the way home I realised I had been in two different “countries”. Actually Alsace is pretty much its own place, not quite France and not quite Germany. You can have sauerkraut and citron presse for lunch. Every day at home I roam the world on my broadband connection.

The nation state is quite a new thing in the history of mankind, but we have gotten in the habit of seeing it as somehow inevitable. How long before it seems a distant memory of savage times ?

Time to brush off your copies of Kropotkin and Proudhon.


October 20, 2008

I had a very American Weekend. Saturday morning we left our comfortable  safe-as-milk suburban house in our Japanese car and set off on the six lane freeway, exiting over the hills to Small Town USA, a.k.a Half Moon Bay. This weekend Small Town came to life, thousands of visitors descending for the annual Pumpkin Festival. We had pumpkin pancakes for breakfast, gawped at the champion pumpkin (1528 lbs !!), and cheered our favourites at the pumpkin pie eating contest. Grand Marshall was Baseball Hero Will “The Thrill” Clark. Then we wandered down to the beach (still warm enough with your clothes on) where we saw bottlenose dolphins leaping in the surf. Finally we went back to town for a cheap Mexican dinner and then got in our car and returned through hyperspace to Palo Alto.

So, as the Chamber of Commerce will explain, Half Moon Bay is the Pumpkin Capital of the World. Last week on our roadtrip home from the City of the Angels, we passed through several other Capitals. Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world and yes indeedy it has an annual Garlic Festival. Lompoc it seems is the Flower Seed Capital of the World – see nice pictures here –  although maybe it could also have been the mural capital of the world. Even more appealing, Buelleton is  the split-pea soup capital of the world.

I began to find this interesting, so Googled for some more. Of course, I have been thoroughly beaten to it. There is a list of “capital of” places here and a more general list of town nicknames here.  My favourite is Fort Payne Alabama. This is apparently the Sock Capital of the World. I think our friends in Nottingham may contest that.

For many decades, the USA has been able to claim that it is the Scientific Capital of the world. This it seems to me is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you turn up at Stanford or MIT or Caltech or whatever, it can be quite hard to find a genuine American. The corridors are full of Poles and Brits and Italians and Japanese and Russians. Its the best because everybody is here. Thats why they come. Because everybody is here. Because this is where they come …

If Western Capitalism falls about our ears, will they all go home ?