About Tony Curzon Price

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

Articles by Tony Curzon Price

This week's editor

James Ron

James Ron hosts this week's openGlobalRights theme: public opinion and human rights.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Google's Attention Deficit Disorder

There's a new buzz about the way Internet watchers are trying to understand what's happening on the web - a sort of generalised hunt for the next web 2.0. Tim O'Reilly---the one who Trade Marked web 2.0 --- has been posting about the links between financial markets and web services like Google, Wikipedia, etc. He is particularly intrigued by the parallel between market makers trading on their own accounts (possibly in conflict with their clients), and Google entering content provision, in services like YouTube and Blogger (and now Knol, in a head-on with Wikipedia). CoryDoctorow and Jim Wales are writing about the possibility of open source, transparent search --- the moment and the reason for the community to take the power back from Google. Indeed, "Jimbo" has announced the launch of Wikia with the hope that "Transparency" and social aggregation will yield better results than Google.


All this is exciting stuff --- we are getting to the point at which we have digested how social information can be aggregated by networked computers, and we are wondering what comes next.

What I haven't seen fully laid out is the analogy between Web 2.0 services and economic mechanisms. Having this analogy clear is useful because it allows us to ask how all the results known about economic mechanisms translate to Web mechanisms. By and large, I think it also shows that Web 2.0 represents the naif phase of web service development--- akin to economists' modeling of perfect competition. The reality is clearly some way from that, but the lessons from mechanism design are not all encouraging: from the point of view of quality of results, the best from the wisdom of the crowds is behind us.

Google:Attention Auction

Let's start with the PageRank algorithm. This mechanism "auctions" attention (the screen position in a search result) and is paid for in links. At a wine auction, lots are ordered from most to least valuable. Value is measured by bidders' willingness to pay. In a "Google search auction"web sites are ordered from most relevant to least, where relevance is measured by the number of quality-weighted links pointing to a page. If I want to get "openDemocracy.net" to number 1 slot on a "Democracy"search, I need to make sure that no one has better quality-weighted links relating Democracy to the domain "openDemocracy.net".Google is auctioning slots in the results pages. On the left hand side are slots auctioned for links; in the right hand side, they are auctioned for money.

So? What of this parallel?

First, to Cory's point about search not being neutral: the design of the algorithm selects what information is returned, and what meaning is given to "relevance". This is generally the case with all auction-like mechanisms. In the wine auction, you will end up allocating wine to different bidders depending on whether you use an ascending or descending auction; and open out-cry auction or a sealed-bid auction. There is a sort of "gold standard" --- Cory's notion of the "neutral search" --- which in the auction literature is called the "efficient"outcome: the one that allocates each good to the bidder that truly values it most. ("Relevance" is a bit trickier than efficiency because of the philosophical issues it raises, so I am not sure Cory's ideal of neutrality exists for long). The auction literature suggests that achieving efficiency is very hard and often requires unbelievably contorted mechanisms.

The auction design literature tells us that whatever mechanism you adopt, bidders will modify their behaviour to do best for themselves. So, in a "first price" auction (one in which you pay what you announce as being prepared to pay --- as opposed to the E-Bay style second price auction), you think hard about what the next person below you is prepared to pay and bid close to that rather than bidding your own maximum willingness to pay. The electricity markets that I worked on inthe 1990's were, would you believe it, mostly designed as first price auctions! This started years of very profitable manipulation by all power companies. Enron was particularly adept.

PageRank manipulation has also turned into an industry. In its simplest form, you buy awell-regarded web property and you then sell links from that property to other sites that are trying to rise in the ranks.

The mechanism literature is very keen on discovering implementable mechanisms that are non-manipulable, in the sense that it is in everyone's selfish interest to reveal the true information about their valuation. In the PageRank analogy, this would be an algorithm that would lead you to create your content without regard for its impact on its Google position, but only with regard to your readers' best interests. So, for example, the simple Search Engine Optimisation advice that all links should be made with descriptive, meaningful terms, might lead one to make this sort of link in an article: "openDemcoracy's "Democracy in Kenya" coverage suggests that ..." instead of "Peter Kimani suggests that ..." If I do the first rather than the second because that is what the SEO handbooks say will improve PageRank's recognition of openDemocracy's links to "Democracy" and"Kenya" ,I am gaming PageRank just as I am gaming the wine auction by second-guessing how cheaply I can let it go before losing it.

The essence of the efficient mechanism design results is that it is important to divorce what someone pays from the outcome of the mechanism. So, the beauty of the E-Bay style "second price" auction is that what I pay is determined by the bid of the next lowest person, not by my bid. It is quite easy to see that it doesn't (usually) make sense for me to game the E-Bay system. (For the interested, the generalisation of the E-Bay auction to many goods --- which a Google page of results is, since it has many slots, is tricky. See Ausubel).

What does this mean for search? I've thought for a while that the equivalent would be for Google to give you not your own PageRank as as core, but the PageRank of your next closest "competitor", or web site. You could then SEO all you like, it won't affect your PageRank, except in so far as it affects your closest competitors'. The trick in this scheme will be implementing who your "nearest neighbour" is for any web page.

PageRank is a market mechanism. Implementing it---like all mechanisms---requires endless fixing around corner cases. An intriguing example is Google's trouble with Jewishness. This kind of "corner case fixing"  might make one think that longevity in the market allows you to perfect the algorithm like no one else does, and so protects you from entry.

But if I were a Google shareholder, I would be worried by the analogy between Google search and a market mechanism. As every web content producer adjusts to Google, its results become necessarily less and less compelling. The joy of Google past was to think hard about the search query and get a first screen result full of relevant but quirky, even obscure material. A Google result today is much less sensitive to the searcher, because every content maker is trying to "buy" space that it can't pay for in "genuine" links. SEO-- even the unconscious SEO that is now so widely practised --  will ossify Google and a better solution will wipe it out with the speed of an epidemic. The web has become over-fitted to Google like a strain of wheat becomes over-designed to a specific ecology. The web is covered in content strategies over-designed to Google, and a new mechanism will find a source of meaningful, un-manipulated information---just as thehyper-link was before PageRank made it a gameable commodity.

Google will disappear much faster than Wikipedia, because Google provides a flow of services, while the Wikipedia mechanism has been accumulating an asset in its millions of pages. But Wikipedia is not out the woods yet. There is an auction analogy there too, from which I forecast that Wikipedia will be gradually locked down, the process for editing more and more institutionalised. Moreof that in a future post.

The openDemcoracy Crowd, 1 year-on

predictive-jan08.html

The oD Sophocrats


openDemocracy launched a set of predictivemarktes in January 2007. The idea was that byallowing oD readers to buy and sell forecasts, the oD crowd wouldreveal its special wisdom.

350 readers signed up to the markets over the year. They were give$1000 to buy forecasts. For example, at the start of the year, youcould buy "Sarkozy becomes French President" for $40. When he becamepresident, you could cash that out for $100. In between time, if theprice on Sarkozy seemed to you out-of-kilter, you could trade andspeculate on the price movements. The top ten traders have shown a realskill and dedication. Tan Copsey, my colleague from China Dialogue,had an eye-popping run of profitable predicting, turning those $1,000into $135,442 - I am sure that he can rest assured of an alternativecareer as a carbon trader.

Sub-prime Chicago

I've been looking forward to Becker's blog posting on sub-prime for a while. I think the current financial crisis will be to economic liberalism what Iraq was to political liberalism: a failure so vast, so shameful, that many will be led to re-assess their world view.

So what does Chicago-school Becker make of it?

He starts with a great piece of fighting rhetoric: The "belief in the beneficial effects of greater knowledge aboutmortgage terms is inconsistent with the evidence that the mostsophisticated banks and investment companies, including Merrill Lynch,Citibank, and Morgan Stanley, have written down their housinginvestments by billions of dollars. No one can reasonably claim that these banks lacked the skills andknowledge to evaluate all the terms of, or the likelihood of repayment,on the subprime and other mortgages that they originated or held asassets."

Banking shakes

How should we interpret the massive investments from sovereign wealth funds being taken by UBS, Citi and Morgan Stanley to shore up their capital reserves? Just when the central banks are making huge amounts of liquidity available cheaply, why are these banks going elsewhere for capital? This seems strange: the public is trying to force cheap money into your pockets, and you go elsewhere to shore-up your balance sheet. Are the Chinese and Gulf States offering even cheaper money?

Not likely. Banking shares have fallen sharply, indicating that equity finance is very expensive at the moment. In fact, you can expect that the new part-owners have negotiated very good terms. The banks are taking money when they need it - always a sign that they'll get it over a barrel.

Is the City the biggest subsidy scrounger around?

Will Hutton was interviewed on Today - the jolly slot at 0857 - about whether the 30,000 UK resident super-rich are good for the country. He talked about incentives, Scandinavia, giving back, Quaker business, Robert Owen ... but I think he missed a real trick - the one Martin Wolf points out in a recent column: the banking super-rich are there thanks to taxpayer subsidy.

In a profoundly radical column in the FT, Martin Wolf asks why the City is so rich and why banks have such a high return on their invested capital - most of the time. For the past 10 years, UK banks have returned an average of 20% on equity, year in, year out. This is huge. The usual defense is that bankers take big risks: hard cash is put up for the mere promise of more later. This is the essence of capitlalistic risk-taking. Of course it earns! - you have to compensate everyone for the roller-coaster ride.

Give us a dollar, oh! you know why.

Brad Setser at RGE Monitor has a very worrying picture:

It shows that long term lending to the US has dried up since August.

The consequences seem to me to be quite stark. Either

  • the US starts to save much more, or
  • the US offers much higher interest rates to foreign lenders
The first case means US, then world recession; the second case means financial market panic and recession. Anyone see any cheer in this?

 

Coherent Disagreement

Who you are determines what you mean. What you say can make who you are.

This dance of talking and being makes listening quite hard, and nowhere more so today than in the questions about Islam and the West.

But listening well allows us to find hopeful pluralism in positions that seem opposed. Compare these two moments in the London culture-sphere: the Guardian's argument around Martin Amis' Islamo-criticism, (the best of it here in Ian McEwan's letter) compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's tour of the city. (Ed Hussain and Douglas Murray yesterday, Timothy Garton Ash today)

Media and Public Sphere: chicken <-> egg, or chicken <-> roast

I am in Vienna, a guest of the Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, who, for their 25th anniversary, gathered a group ``Towards a European Public Space; International workshop on European media networking''. Mostly new serious media types, with a few academics (and some who were both) and one Commission representative, Habermas hovered over the day.

There was lots of really good material--Mark Hunter's combination of INSEAD hard-headedness with a career in investigative journalism; Jeremy Druker's description of TOL's training/editorial business model; Thierry Chervel, founder of the wonderful SignAndSight project, etc... I will have time to return to these.

Facebook: World Wide Tupperware Party

Facebook, with its advertising announcement, has just turned your friendly social networking neighbourhood into one big Tupperware party. Tupperware, the maker of ever convenient plastic containers, became marketing history by enlisting the suburban American 1950's housewife as a sales force. Invited by your neighbour to shoot the breeze, she would whip out her line of Tupperware containers and be rewarded for the number she sold to you.

This is the Facebook version. When you're doing something on the Web that you'd like your friends to know about, you press the "publish to my profile" button. This then shows up on all your friends' facebook home pages, the place where they keep track of the background coming and going of all those cyber-chums. If what you flag is somehow related to a comercial opportunity, Facebook's clever advertising data miners will figure it out and put an ad next to what you've just done.

Don't be Googil

Google's been busy at behemoth work these past few days.

Google announced an "open" social networking protocol, and then of an "open" mobile phone system. Sounds like we at openDemocracy should be cheering along all this boundariless bounty from the kings of search...

Well, remember the basic trade of what Google calls "open": "you get free X, Y, Z just as long as you click through the localised, social-network savvy ads often enough". Whatever the context --- looking at at a map on my google-phone to find that contact I've just made through your social network --- my world will have advertising deeply embedded (as I have written about before, here). It's not as if you're going to some place and have a social network, and, accidentally, an advertisement is added - like the billboard along the road. Who I'm going to see will be partly a function of advertising, because my social-network software is one of the advertisers' prime battle grounds. The road I take will be partly function of advertising, because mapping is a key service to hang ads off. In other words, this isn't the innocent world of the billboard---we're entering a time when the billboard makes the world. And Google has the franchise.

Crisis or crescendo for the economy

The banks

The big banks have lost a lot of money in the credit crunch. The utterly engrossing live transcript of FT Alphaville's Chat on November 1st, when the big banking losses started to scare the stock-markets, shows all the gallows humour of a truly bleak picture for UBS, Merrill Lynch, Citi, etc.

We're not quite sure how bad it is, because the assets the banks hold don't currently have a price: no one will trade them. Gillian Tett, in the FT, has an alarming article: she points out that the banks' auditors, remembering Enron, are now getting nervous about how the banks are reporting losses. Assets that were considered valuable safe bets one day are turned into highly risky, devalued paper the next.

JK Rowling - Which culture?

When JK Rowling was interviewed by Razia Iqbal (go to minute 22 or so) on the BBC this morning, there were a few intriguing directions the story almost went in. Rowling is auctioning a single copy of a book of fairy tales, and donating the revenues to children's mental health in Eastern Europe.

What a dream for an arts corespondent: from questions about the aura of a single book in an age of mass mechanical reproduction; to the content of the stories; to whether the medievalist exclusivity of a single illuminated book is an elitist slap in the face to paperback-clutching fans, and even on to why Rowling has chosen this good cause above all others ... the field was immense and Rowling is a willing and engaging interviewee.

"Today's" to-do: a) speak truth to power; b) become one with audience; c) avoid "national treasure" status

With a tin ear and no television in my life, I walked into the BBCist crowd assembled for the 50th birthday of "Today" the morning radio news-show (a bit like NPR's "Morning Edition", or the French "Les Matin de France Culture") knowing there would be neither familiar faces nor voices around me. Until John Humphrys, who has been presenting the show for most of my adult life, took to the microphone, again. Here is a voice that has woken me up more often than my wife or daughters, who has come in and out of my morning dreams. It is the archetypal voice of the ordinary Englishman---pragmatic, impatient of obfuscation, a little enamoured of pomp.

Relics are the hardware

Jonathan Freedland has a great edition of "The Long View", the BBC Radio show that draws historical parallels. He proposes the analogy between the use of relics to bind the 9th century Carolingian empire, and the trouble the Church gets into over their authenticity, with the current trouble that broadcast media have over the "reality" of documentaries, reality shows and games. The parallel works on many levels, and although it is treated lightly, the parallels between the media and the Church I think are very powerful: they are the nationally (or imperially) binding institutions, they create the unity ... but their authority gets challenged from within, on their own terms - they are trapped by their own contradictions.

Toxic-onomics

Nasim Taleb has a great piece in the FT arguing that the economics Nobel's are not just clever but dishonest marketing, but are actually damaging to the financial system. Taleb claims:

The environment in financial economics is reminiscent of medieval medicine, which refused to incorporate the observations and experiences of the plebeian barbers and surgeons. Medicine used to kill more patients than it saved – just as financial economics endangers the system by creating, not reducing, risk.

Representative, or did you mean representative, or maybe representative?

Representative, or did you mean representative, or maybe representative?

The question of representation has been discussed a great deal in openDemocracy's coverage of Tomorrow's Europe poll. There is confusion of terminology - statistical representativeness does not mean political representativeness, does not mean experimental representativeness. There is also a surprising amount of theoretical contention in both the statistical and political senses to make the opportunity for confusing conflation truly vast.

Clive has asked whether the stratified sampling used on Tomorrow's Europe can be representative when the selection was biased in order to include more of certain nationalities than would have normally come out of a random sample of this relative size. The DP designers handled this problem in the way discussed by Fishkin (here).

Public space must police politicans and ranters

I was very kindly invited to YouGovStone's Evening Standard Influentials Debate on the London Housing Crisis. Debating and its role in the creation of a Public Space is much in my mind - and on my page, as here. So, for now, here are a few thoughts about the form rather than the content.

The 200 person auditorium divides roughly into 4 categories:

The cheap-talk challenge: what is debate really for?

You can't be involved for long with openDemocracy - or with any serious new-media publication - without soon needing a reply to the "cheap-talk" challenge: "what's all this debate for anyway?" Are we just doing fire-drill, waiting for the day when holding power to account will be a matter of saving civilisation? Or does all this talk do more? Does it define who we are, and, in pervasive ways we hardly notice, change our behaviour, our beliefs of what is possible and our impact on those around us?

Tony Curzon Price is the editor-in-chief of openDemocracy.

He worked as a consultant economist for more than ten years. Since 1997, he has lectured on economics and energy policy to postgraduates at Imperial College, London, and at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Among Tony Curzon Price's articles in openDemocracy:

"The ‘as if' economist: Milton Friedman's legacy"(27 November 2006)

"The wisdom of the openDemocracy crowd"(29 December 2006)

"The Economist Redux"(5 February 2007)

"Tony Blair and centralisation"(20 February 2007)

"The reach of economics: a reply to Diane Coyle(13 March 2007)

"Das Google Problem: is the invisible mouse benevolent?"(20 April 2007)

"The reinvention of scarcity" (13 June 2007)

"Making up minds" (23 July 2007)

"Corporate liability and social interest" (25 July 2007)

"The end of gentlemanly capitalism" (13 August 2007)

"The conditions of quality" (22 August 2007)

"Gordon Brown: between rock and hard place" (18 September 20
These are the big questions of "why debate?" But the answers will also inform all the everyday decisions that a web publication needs to make. Should commenters be registered? Is anonymity allowed? Does reputation grow? Should the debating community moderate itself? Should different areas have different levels of "openness"? Should articles be commissioned to fit into well-conceived debates, or should editors rely on unprompted submissions to create debate? Why should philanthropists or public bodies fund the sort of conversation that we make?

Liquidity Enhancement - plastic surgery for drying bankers?

The beautifully named SIV Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit (SMLEC), the fund the big investment banks are putting together to rescue each other, is a stitch-up. Roubini has a dense but compelling post about it that argues:

it is not about resolving a "coordination / liquidity" crisis because so many of the assets that are held by the "Special Investment Vehicles" (SIV) are in fact dud, rather than illiquid. So the SMLEC super-fund, if it attracts new lenders, will have to cherry pick the good assets out of the SIVs. But if it cherrypicks, then the SIV problem, and facing up to the losses, only gets worse - they are left with all the bad assets. (Remember, and this is important for later, the SIVs are the not-quite-arm's-length companies set up by the banks to hold these risky, mis-priced assets. Some of them are fully fledged hedge-funds, some of them are pure legal fictions ... there is a continuum of specialness in the SIV world).

Why is HSBC trying to bank with me?

HSBC, my bank, has been acting strangely lately. I called them for some simple shuffling of funds from one place to another, and they immediately started suggesting that I move some of my funds into term deposits - that would guarantee I wouldn't be asking for my cash soon. Then, I got a letter in the post saying: "you haven't used your credit card in a long time, and it is costing you £25 a year ... are you sure you don't want to cancel it?"

This worries me. Why does HSBC, usually so keen to lend to me, need to try to make sure that 1. it can count on being able to borrow my meagre balance (that is what the term deposit is, in effect - me lending to them), and 2. that I do not even have the capacity to borrow the £3,000 they extend to me on my un-used credit card?

Roubini comes to Europe

RGEMonitor, long my favourite reading on macro-economics (at least the non-subscription pieces of it ...), has launched an open Euro-economics publication at http://www.rgemonitor.com/euro-monitor.

Just 2 posts up there for now, but it looks good, and I look forward to it.

The piece by Dennis Snower on what can still go wrong with the world economy, despite the weird calm that has descended after the half point cut, is admirably clear. As is his cool assessment of the longer term adjustment: the US spends less, saves more; China does the opposite ... and order is restored. How hard it is to be an economist and to resist Panglossianism. Keynes famously had to resort to the threat of death - where we all end up, eventually - to resist the "eventuallies" of long run equibilibrium forces.

Gordon Brown: between rock and hard place

On 6 May 1997, the BBC ran a picture of a youthful, determined, courageous Gordon Brown with the text "...the bank will now be free to decide monetary policy without taking the short-term wishes of politicians into account.''

The newly installed chancellor's first and last interest-rate-setting meeting with the governor of the Bank of England - five days after the "new Labour" government led by Tony Blair had been elected in Britain after eighteen years of Conservative rule - was thus an announcement of the bank's independence.

We are recruiting a Russia editor

Thanks to a generous grant, we are extending our Russia coverage.

Clock Grabbing

Professor Detlef Pollack presented the NEF/van Leer conference with some data on secularisation in Europe: are we becoming less religious? can it be measured? is it getting faster or slower?
He contrasted a basic "secularisation hypothesis" - we are getting less interested in all things religious - with two other hypotheses: the "market model", whereby competition for the supply of religious goods is hotting up, and that competition leads to less activity in established churches; and the much more radical "individualization hypothesis" according to which religion can be viewed as a bundle of goods which are now being supplied in all sorts of different ways. As Professor Pollack says:

"Today, religion and religiousness can be encountered in previously
unexpected settings – in psychoanalysis, the leisure culture, communal cults, tourism,
and sports."


I'd love to find lists of what that bundle might actually comprise - but one thing it certainly involves is the control of the calendar. The oldest archeological relics we have of priestly ritual involve calendars - machines to measure when the critical annual events of a primitive agrarian society should occur. Each religion defines its year dot just as much as its annual rhythm of feasts and fasts. The Ise Shrine in Japan has been rebuilt every 20 years, each time identically, since 4BC, to represent simultaneously both renewal and permanence. With modern individualization - in Northern Europe, at least - the secular birthday won out over the Saint's day as the sanctioned, private beat to the family's year. By telling us what the important, recurrent milestones of a year should be, a public calendar sets social priority - be they planting, harvesting and fasting, or forgiving, remembering, fighting or defeat.

I like the Individualization hypothesis - even if Professor Pollack found it hard to find evidence for it in his current work. It certainly makes sense of all the land-grab over the calendar that we can see today. The anniversary of 9/11 is coming back; the deca-versary of Diana's death made an attempted grab at the British calendar; the quinqua-versary of the European Union has been marked as a year dot for some ... and Ethiopia is celebrating its own millenium tomorrow.

Sarkozy: ``Voltaire is not negotiable''

Sarkozy has established the chillingly named Ministère de l'Immigration, de l'Intégration, de l'Identité nationale et du Codéveloppement..

Does this make immigration a ``national identity problem''? Ministries are set up to deal with problems. This ministry defines a problem and a solution. Is it a throw-back to ``the sombre years of France's past''. France's élite, from the President down, is admirably composed of the descendants of immigrants. Listen to Jean-Philippe Moinet and Patrick Weil debating with Alain Finkielkraut, whether it is time, as Finkielkraut asks, to ``recognise the singularity of today'' and ignore the terrible echoes of history in the new ministry.

Gilles Keppel: Multiculti + Londonistan = Terror

Gilles Kepel, French scholar of Islam (and openDemocracy author) presented us with a paradox: British ``multi-culti'' gave home born terrorism; French republicanism, fired by ``la Mission Civilisatrice de la France'' (the civilising vocation of France), produced banlieues riots of disaffected youth, but no dangerous terrorism. Are there lessons to be drawn?

Kepel offers the argument that the 7/7 bombers came from communities that had, by the policy of multi-culturalism, been allowed to retain their own community structures. These structures were not ready to accommodate the second and third generation rebels, some of whom turned to the radicalism that had been given friendly bearth in Londonistan from the 1970s onwards. The two together made some young men prepared to become terrorists, while the old community structures were unwilling to denounce them because of Britain's Iraq involvement.

Does secularism turn political religion into a problem?

This was Professor Jose Casanova's contention in the opener of the Van Leer Institute/Network of European Foundations conference on Religion and Democracy in Europe. It's not the economy, stupid ... it's secularism.

He makes a convincing case: we start with a liberal, secularist world view that ses the European nation struggling to emerge out of the clutches of a fused Church and Monarchy of the high middle ages, through the reformation and elnlightenment which together create the three autonomous spheres of religion, politics and science. This is associated to the development of freedom, the possibility of self-realisation and democracy. Any new incursions of religion out of its well defined, private, box should be treated with great suspicion according to this view.

Regis Debray: Israel pessimist. Tony Curzon Price

This link details Regis Debray's depressing view of the disappearing reality of a 2-state option in Israel/Palestine. It came through my email, just as I sit in an airport lounge bound for Jerusalem.

I am going to the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute for a Network of European Foundations conference on Religion, Democracy and Europe. My last visit to Israel and Jerusalem, some 10 years ago, happened at what seemed like a time of greater hope for peace. I enjoyed the wonderful scholarly atmosphere of the Hebrew University economics department for a week with the basic assumption that a real 2-state solution was not far off.

The conditions of quality

A conversation with Carl Djerassi has no chance of running out of subject-matter. The energetic octogenarian, whose latest play has just opened in New York, was a Viennese emigré of the 1930s, the first chemist to synthesise the Pill, is a professor at Stanford, a collector of Paul Klee, and the author of novels, plays and dialogues. He has made a mark as an industrialist, a scientist, a man of letters and a patron. He moves between these realms with comfort, and preserves across them a remarkable sense of what is intrinsically valuable. He synthesised the Pill before the sexual revolution, he collected Klee before the resurgence of interest in early German expressionism ... and before crowd-soursing and user-generated content was the mantra of the web-age, he had his class at Stanford perform a collaborative writing exercise that was of such high quality and interest that it was published by Nature.

Bernanke Hugs the Hedgies

So Bernanke decided tohug the hedgies after all ...By cutting the federal funds rate by a 1/2 percent, Bernanke has rewarded the banking system for its latest panic. Think of it like this: money is banking's most important raw material, and the Fed, the sort of OPEC of the world money supply, has just reduced the price of that raw material by over 10%.

Think of this behaviour in any other industry. As an oil firm, for example, I drill oil wells in distant expensive locations hoping it will be profitable. It tuns out not to be. So OPEC decides to cut me some cheap oil to compensate me. What sort of incentive does that give me?

The Spinners get Spun

Virgil Griffith has just made it possible for us to glimpse at how the spinners on wikipedia have been spinning their tale for us. Go and look for yourself.

When you edit a wikipedia entry anonymously, you still leave just a bit of a trace: the Internet Protocal number that your local network uses to access the internet.  So it is possible to tell the organisations from which people have been modifying specific wikipedia entries ... and possible to infer that these organisations were behind those changes, especially where some narrative about the interests involved can be concocted.

Is deliberative democracy really "democratic"

I happened to be re-reading Professor John Dunn's excellent 2005 article on what democracy is good for and what it isn't much good for and I was struck by the concluding paragraph:

Less steadily and on far less egalitarian terms, it [democracy] also provides a framework through which to explore together what people should and should not attempt to do as a community. Virtually none of the elements of an answer to that question can come from democracy as an idea. Almost all have to be pieced together arduously from somewhere else.

The end of gentlemanly capitalism

Over the past week, we - the rich-world voter and taxpayer - have bailed out the hedge-funds, their bankers and their counterparts caught in the global squeeze on credit. Again. It happened in 2001 and in 1998. The financial system has once more fallen into the soft, bouncy, but ultimately comfortable safety-net (trampoline?) that we - all of us together, through our central banks and the losses we are prepared to underwrite as taxpayers - extend to troubled financiers.

Google News: Friend or Frenemy?

Google News: Friend or Frenemy?

When Banquo, whom we know Macbeth is about to have murded, walks about the ramparts after nightfall and hears a rustling behind him, he is worried enough about his safety to let out a ``Who goes there?'' Macbeth says simply: ``A friend''. Not ``Your friend, Macbeth,'' but the ominous anonymous ``Friend''.

Google News has been much in my thoughts lately. Firstly, as friend. Google News has added openDemocracy to their list of sources for their News service. This is a recognition that we fit the basic criteria that Google applies for a news provider, that we: (more...)

Corporate liability and social interest

How does corporations' immunity from public damage relate to kite-surfing? Tony Curzon Price talks to two experts about the risks of "limited liability"

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