Somewhere between Thursday and Saturday, Bob Crow appeared on one of the TV news channels in an interview in which he was pictured in a Bradley Wiggins x Fred Perry shirt, nearly Yves Klein blue, and his expensive tan, in front of a massive parliamentary-looking bookcase. I am trying to find a screengrab in order to pursue this tweet. I’ve got the screengrab in my head but I’m not visual artist enough to reproduce it as a sketch. Can you help? I assure you the blog post will be epic if we find it.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this Randeep Ramesh piece in the Grauniad.
However, the coalition is concerned that these levels of building will not meet the demand for properties, particularly in south-east England where outright normal home ownership is not an option for many. So [Danny] Alexander and his Tory cabinet colleague Eric Pickles will announce a review that will examine how “innovative financing mechanisms” could be used to raise the rate of affordable housebuilding.
That sounds like a simple plan! In fact, one of the proposals mentioned gives the simple plan an extra twist by suggesting that local authority pension schemes might be persuaded to invest in it. Unlike the central government schemes, council ones are funded, so they control some really large investment funds that need a safe home with a non-risible fixed return. I am actually kicking myself for not having included this in the original simple plan, as it’s a genuinely neat idea.
That said, it’s always worth counting your fingers with this lot.
Sources in the Treasury were keen to stress that the review would not be able to recommend measures that breached the government’s strict borrowing rules, seeking to contrast this with Labour’s “borrow to invest” political rhetoric.
Housebuilding based on the LHA income stream might well pass the government’s prudential borrowing tests, but so far councils have been told in no uncertain terms that there’s no point applying. So either the review is going to “offer all possible help other than actual assistance” in the words of Winston Churchill, or else it’s going to invent a new category of less borrow-y borrowing.
The government’s affordable rent scheme will see housing associations and councils offer rented homes to social tenants at a maximum of 80% of market rent rather than the 30% offered by traditional council housing. Accompanying changes to the way tenancies are offered will allow housing providers to offer more flexible leases, some as short as two years.
I don’t know why the “will say” trope is used here; “affordable” has been defined as 80% of market, i.e. not affordable, for years. The point about leases is also interesting and worrying. Up in the head of the piece, before the bit about local authority pension funds, there’s this:
The government is to announce a “wide-ranging” review to examine how to encourage City investors, insurers and pension funds to put up cash to build affordable housing schemes, designed to help poorer people get a roof over their heads.
Between 1989 and 2007, UK housing policy was famously to let housing benefit take the strain, pace Lord Young. This meant that people would rent, rents would be allowed to go where they might, and central government handouts would fill any gap and also act as a unacknowledged financial settlement between regions. They would rent from private landlords, and also from housing associations.
The private element of this was dependent on two innovations. The first was mortgage securitisation, which permitted the expansion of buy-to-let lending. The second was the assured shorthold tenancy, which permitted the expansion of buy-to-let borrowing by making it easier to function as a landlord without putting in time. The combination of these two innovations with the decline of final salary pensions and the string of mis-selling disasters from Barlow Clowes to PPI made rental property the middle class savings vehicle of choice. In the context of a property market with restricted supply and deregulated mortgage lending, it also made a property bubble very likely and made any action to stop it politically and eventually practically impossible.
The new policy sketched in the last quote is very similar, with one major difference. First of all, rents are deregulated and go up. Second, private landlords are central to it. Third, tenancies are shortened and made much less secure in order to financialise housing. This is precisely the package deployed by Young in the late 1980s.
The difference is that the landlords are expected to be strategic investors rather than retail savers. This represents the fact that a lot of people have burned their fingers and a lot more don’t have any savings, perhaps because of the cost of housing.
Anyone who’s ever been a tenant knows that there is more to being a landlord than rent; it’s fair to say that professional management, in itself, would be an improvement. You can make a case that amateurs are better out of the game, too. But we ought to be sceptical of the same old bullshit from the same old gang. “Unaffordable rent, mitigated by LHA” renders the people in the houses too vulnerable to political caprice. And real estate professionals are very often the biggest plungers in the boom and the biggest crashers in the crash. Watch out.
Some technology links. This is a fabulously weird and awful idea, and it’s probably for the best someone did it as art before someone made a startup.
In January, 2013, she moved to Portland, Oregon, a city where she barely knew anyone, and went on sixteen first dates. For each date, she streamed audio and video of the proceedings to Ustream, and paid workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (a market for crowdsourcing tasks) to watch, comment, and send her instructions….When January ended, McCarthy returned to the East Coast in a “pretty confused state.” She ended up on a date recently, unplanned and with no Turk workers to back her up. “When he tried to kiss me, I believe my exact phrase was ‘I really don’t have any grasp on my basis for making decisions about this stuff right now, so ok?’”
See also this story, about trying to represent really advanced UX design in a near-future movie. As you well know, I really dislike the whole Google Now/Glass push-suggestion model, and I suspect it will be more like the first story than this one. The future is awkward.
The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provides a geological survey of the area around the Chinese Chang’3 lander. Really sadly, the NASA project scientists aren’t allowed to cooperate with the Chinese, but they can put all their results on the web and who knows who might wget the lot. I love the fact there are multiple, complementary spacecraft out at the Moon and Mars, so far beyond just sticking a flag in the regolith.
Realclimate investigates and concludes that Thames Barrier closures probably aren’t informative about climate change.
I keep meaning to go back to this, but Eli Rabett and others are rattling the tin to keep the Mauna Loa CO2 concentration series going because some bastard won’t fund it. Give!
Here’s a new tool for making a REST API for any website. Beyond webscraping.
A good discussion of 3D printing at war; the point that navies are likely to get the benefit first is a good one.
Pills that make you learn after supposed critical periods have passed.
The Sony SRF-39FP radio, an important artefact in the material culture of US prisons.
The really interesting bit, though, is that Sony didn’t do some grudging just-enough thing for convicts – they did a great job, so much so that radio hams collect them because the single-chip RF chain and the antenna provide superb sensitivity and selectivity at minimal power consumption…like you need if you want to listen to the radio in the depths of a supermax wing, but also I suspect out of sheer engineering love.
All it lacks is a picture of the thing. Like so.
I blogged about this years ago, but here is a good story, with great photos, about Eero Saarinen’s headquarters for Bell Labs, now abandoned after the Alcatel acquisition. There’s now a scheme to reuse it, fortunately.
And a wannabe terrorist chose to take a RIPA III conviction rather than disclose the encryption key to a USB drive. This protected the security of the data on the drive, right up until the cops tried the key he already gave them for another drive. Four Lions was a documentary.
Norwegian civil defence helo waved off from fire by air traffic control after reports of one or more “media drones” in the area. Have whatever fun you like with the phrase “media drone”, but this is a really important point. Airspace management and deconfliction are hard.
We’re paying for the Afghan police, but the Afghan government doesn’t necessarily actually pay over the money. Jesus wept.
Conor Friedersdorf stands in for Megan McArdle, and rather than the barrage of mockery you might hope for, gets a barrage of poisonous misogyny instead. His past experience of comments trolls is much like mine, including the induced pachydermy, and probably far worse given his role as a broadly reasonable man in US conservatism. It must be bad.
Irna Qureshi’s Belter of a Blog discusses the surprising similarity of Pakistani and Yorkshire attitudes to land, and the even weirder way people chose to divide up their living space in exactly the same fashion on each side of the ethnic divide, at least until they moved out to somewhere that wasn’t built with a natural front parlour-tek-your-shoes-off-lad-it’s-Sunday.
I remember delivering Sunwin House appliances to homes like that – depending on the size and awkwardness of the drop, you might get away with going through the back door into the kitchen, but if it was a fridge freezer it might be impossible to avoid using the front door into someone’s zenana, under disapproving eyes. The decor would always be almost surreally different to the rest of the house or indeed anything you might expect from outside, sometimes astonishingly rich. Not that different from the next drop’s barely used front room and don’t-you-be-marking-the-paintwork-with-us-new-Hotpoint-son.
A lot of people imagine that xenophobic press nonsense is fundamentally British, or even English. Stefan Niggemeier examines how Bild Zeitung essentially invented the idea that Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants to Germany might not get child benefit, or only on conditions, and the serious German papers ran with the story without making their own inquiries.
AVPS is pleased with Ed Miliband’s emerging tendency to wrap left-wing content in the rhetoric of concern about immigration.
Phil Edwards discusses the feedback loop between public concern and policy-marketing, and, er, Bryan Caplan.
The “Create Streets” lot are being mithered by the very serious people again. Dave Hill of the Guardian and Faisal Islam from the Ha! Ha! Poors Channel have been at it since the turn of the year.
London housing crisis: Create Streets? Fine. But who decides? http://t.co/Pz6x2ep2yG
— DaveHill (@DaveHill) January 10, 2014
— Faisal Islam (@faisalislam) January 6, 2014
The main reason seems to be that their Tory in residence, Peter Lilley’s old bag carrier Nicholas Boys Smith, has had a piece in Conservative Home. It must be time to scramble the Unacceptable Behaviour Team.
Says Boys Smith:
The problem is not just that there is limited space but that despite the desperate need for new housing, specific new housing projects often encounter local opposition – with long consequent delays. Just look at the controversy surrounding redevelopment at Earl’s Court or the Heygate Estate in Southwark.
Right. He also says:
However, if the potential long term returns from estate regeneration in London are excellent why is nothing happening? It is partly because the politics of regeneration are so hard. Put simply most people just don’t like most recent developments. It is also because the short term cash flow and returns from this type of estate regeneration are pretty bad. This is due to the cost of demolition, the time required for the additional value of an attractive ‘place’ to feed through fully to sale prices & market rental values and the need to ensure all those in social housing on the current site are re-housed.
He goes on with a policy recommendation or two. First up is some stuff about evil “high rise” (actually, not all the places he mentions are high-rise, or at least they’re no higher than his mate Heneage Stephenson’s 8-10 story projects in Dublin), and a bit of watered-down new urbanism about “connected streets”.
Actually, the architectural stuff is very flaky. We are told that:
current rules in London are even sharply biased against high density streets
the long term returns of developing low density post-war estates as attractive, high-density ‘normal’ and well-connected terraced streets of houses and medium rise flats could be fantastic
conventional high-density street-based developments generate 32 per cent more value per hectare
Many new large scale regenerations are being done at a sort of uber-density that is unpopular
So, to sum up, density is great and we should have more of it, but it’s also unpopular and evil and we should have less of it. Huh. Let’s forget the bullshit and get to the meat.
His big idea is that the Public Works Loan Board, the agency through which the central government finances local councils’ building projects, would lend money to the “owners of large estates” to knock them down and rebuild like he wants. These owners would have the right to sell the new properties privately and also to use Right-to-Buy sales to pay off the loan from the PWLB.
Obviously, if private sales and RTB are meant to pay off the loan, they need to happen. So we’re basically repeating the whole 1980s disaster over again, just for starters. He also suggests that the PWLB, and therefore the Treasury, might take a share of any capital gain on the value of the land and buildings in exchange for charging a lower interest rate:
Possibly rates could be more generous if there was some exposure to any capital value increase in the site
This implies selling or mortgaging the property in order to raise the cash to pay back the Treasury. Given that he would presumably work under Boris Johnson’s “affordable rent” rules (i.e. 80% of average market rates), and he intends to sell a whole lot of units, it is very obvious why there might be “local opposition” – the homes are going and they ain’t coming back. If anyone did manage to stick around, they would only do so by drawing heavily on Local Housing Allowance.
Is this cynical? Not for a moment. Boys Smith has already said that he doesn’t want to re-house the people who live there already:
the need to ensure all those in social housing on the current site are re-housed
And, of course, he wants something doing about their right to object to his plans via the planning process:
specific new housing projects often encounter local opposition – with long consequent delays. Just look at the controversy surrounding redevelopment at Earl’s Court or the Heygate Estate in Southwark
But that’s all right. He doesn’t believe they are real people.
Surely a massive increase of supply of good normal housing that real people want to live in is an idea worth piloting in the budget for March?
The “local opposition” wants to live there; presumably they aren’t really people.
Anyway, so “Create Streets” wants:
1) A carve-out of the planning laws
2) A huge soft loan from government
3) Continuing flows of LHA from government
4) To keep the proceeds of selling public lands
5) To use the coercive powers of the state for its profit
Isn’t this the definition of crony capitalism? And it’s a past modus operandi, too.
We know, after all, that one of “Create Streets”, Mr Heneage, is currently trying to pay off his debt to Ireland’s NAMA, the entity through which Irish taxpayers bought their banks’ bad deals, by offering the land he wanted to cover in 10 story minitowers as payment. And he’s already had three years’ forbearance on interest and principal off the Irish.
No wonder, then, that as Nicholas Boys Smith says:
parts of London which are well-connected and in the form of high-density terraced streets and squares are more valuable, other things being equal, than areas which are not.
Indeed. Being well-connected is always very valuable.
It seems incongruous to cite Langewiesche and Michael White in the same post, so I broke this out separately and it grew. White worries that public anger at MPs’ pay and expenses and even actual thieving will rob us of inspiring examples of public service, such as Denis MacShane.
What gets me here is that MacShane is as good as it gets for White – a second-division pol who ferociously supported the Iraq War and also the Euro, combining two absolutely catastrophic policy disasters into a greater whole through a kind of alchemy of dross. This is what we should look up to.
In his second act, he picked on “trafficked women” as a cause but couldn’t actually find any, having utterly failed to listen to anyone who knew anything at all about the issue, and turned to the man who accompanied him throughout his political career – Signor Ben Trovato. I can think of few pols who have been caught making up their facts as often as MacShane – only the wretched Iain Duncan Smith comes to mind.
But the real problem with MacShane wasn’t what he did, it was how he did it. His whole approach to politics had a mean streak a mile wide. Few Iraq War boosters were as keen to smear, insult, and mock those of us who were right. We were Islamofascists. We were crypto-racists. We were in bed with the enemy. We were, invariably, anti-Semites.
Then, he turned around and viciously abused White’s colleague Nick Davies for disagreeing with his crusade to rescue fallen women. The sorry story is here. Davies was suddenly “taking the side of the managers of the sex industry”. The rhetoric barely changed at all – he just swapped a couple of nouns and he was ready to go, a variable geometry political thug offering multi-role capability against a wide range of targets. And then he invented a fake thinktank in order to pad his expenses!
My dear colleague, Daniel Davies, argues that there is something tragic or at least tragicomic about MacShane, and that his crime was motivated by the effort to live up to the European public intellectual role he felt the UK lacked. I would amend this.
The problem with MacShane was that he was like Quentin Crisp’s pig farmer who was born to be a ballet dancer – a man whose talents and aspirations lay in radically different directions. He imagined he was Danny Cohn-Bendit, but was more like David Batty. Can anyone remember any ideas he might have had about the European Union? The senior pols who promoted him didn’t want him for his thoughts on Europe, but for his thug’s sense of gut tactics and his willingness to cart it up, come what may. And like Crisp’s pig farmer, after thirty years, pigs were his style.
It was a cynic’s career, by a cynic, for cynics. And that was what Westminster politics valued and got. Cynicism and ruthlessness have their place in politics – it’s an adversarial activity, after all – but nobody thinks they are actually admirable in themselves. Except, apparently, for Michael White.
The problem here is a standard one for people who live at the centre of politics. They come to believe both that Westminster is of all-dominating, cosmic importance, and also that it is of no intrinsic interest. They are not interested in politics so much as in politicianing, a sort of professional sport. MacShane was a specialist in one of its component disciplines, and importantly, one that is entirely neutral with regard to content.
Hence it doesn’t matter to White that MacShane achieved essentially nothing of substance except for widening the vocabulary of political insult a bit. Before him, it wasn’t routine to call people anti-Semitic because they disagreed with you. Now it is.
White expects us to take politicianing seriously, as if it were actual politics, while he and MacShane continue to treat it with utter cynicism – in other words, to piss on us and tell us it’s raining. We may not be able to turn off the flow, but we can at least disbelieve the assertion and wear a hat.
And of course the tone matters, too, as it did with MacShane. White is apparently trying to achieve greater public involvement in politics, especially among the youth, by patronising the shit out of the public, and especially, the youth. Good luck with that. Or perhaps it’s not so daft. If White hadn’t chosen to patronise me and some people I know, I certainly wouldn’t have bothered to write 778 words on MacShane. And if MacShane hadn’t chosen to insult various people I know, I wouldn’t have bothered to write about him ever.
Things to read. James Meek on housing in Britain as part of a wider project to declare the basic fabric of life an illegitimate subject of political debate. Inside Housing‘s review of the year, mostly of interest for the way it paints the Coalition as a culture not just uninterested in facts but actively hostile to fact as a philosophical category.
Things are very bad in Iraq, and the BBC makes the point with a simple and therefore good chart. William Langewiesche explores the underground infrastructure of New York City, and profiles the people who keep the water in some of the tubes and out of the others. Incredibly, Vanity Fair has an archive page that lists all Langewiesche’s work for them, and it’s absolutely free, so you can just shove your face into the pile, like the guy at the end of Scarface with the plateful of cocaine.
Bunnie Huang has discovered that SD cards – SD cards! – contain a programmable computer, substantially more powerful than an Arduino or similar. This is because the quality of the physical medium is subject to psuedorandom imperfections, and the only way to get around this is to learn where they are. I knew HDDs worked like that but I had no idea SD cards contained microcontrollers. We are surrounded by an ambiguous plenty of electronics in which only trust is scarce.
This is interesting about the Ed.
A reader recommended Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain. This book is a survey of the British tradition in cybernetics, which it argues is a third, distinct strand of thinking that differs from the characteristic MIT and Soviet schools of thought. Where the US cyberneticians were inspired by engineering problems and saw it as a science of artificial intelligence, and the Soviets as a generalised theory of organisations, the Brits saw it as a means of inquiry into the sciences of the brain, and were especially inspired by biology and ecology, psychiatry, and fieldwork in sociology or in the practice of management consulting.
It’s also an impressive assortment of cool stuff, from robots that initiate a mating dance to Stafford Beer’s putatively intelligent pond just outside Sheffield. (Don’t you want a science-fiction alternate history where that thing worked?) Apparently, Beer and David Suzuki put together a high-concept 80s coffee table photo survey of the history of computing, including Japanese fishermen’s rope tallies and SGI workstations. Don’t you want one of those? No? What are you doing on this blog?
More seriously, the lesson that stuck out for me was that a lot of the work in neural networks, expert systems, and embodied cognition was rediscovered since the 80s in robotics and in theoretical computer science, and since then a hell of a lot of it has found applications. I suspect that the challenge now may be to get the emerging disciplines of user-experience design and service design to rediscover it in their turn.
To some extent, the cybernetic tradition of hardware-hacking and rapid prototyping as a method of inquiry has stuck around and prospered with the UX people, but I’m not sure if the critical element has got across. Beer didn’t just ask if this worked, he asked if it should work. The huge recommendations systems of the e-commerce majors are a fine example of the kind of artefacts cybernetic ideas were intended to help us explore and learn to live with.
Things I didn’t like about the book: the weird framing of the Iraq War as a big modernist planning scheme.
The individuals who drove the project on were very much informed by critiques of planning, by complex-systems studies, and by cybernetic and systems dynamics ideas. They were libertarians and people who spent their careers building the network-centric warfare systems of the 1980s! That’s what “regime change” means – a lot of people assumed it simply meant “replace the government of Iraq with a different one” or even “change some features of the government of Iraq”, but in fact it means “cause the whole Middle Eastern political system to flip to a different state”.
Rumsfeld had his “regime change”, and Petraeus’ “complex-adaptive systems approach” was called for to clean up the consequences. On a less intellectual level, all sorts of Iraq boosters constantly attacked experts, Arabists, and the very idea that a plan might have been useful.
Generally, I wasn’t totally convinced by Pickering’s philosophical distinction between “performative” and “representational” knowledge either. I understand the point, but it is perfectly possible to have a working, emotional/kinaesthetic understanding of something that is also horribly, disastrously wrong, and inhumane to boot. The history of medicine is a great source here.
Speaking of which, boy, there’s some deeply creepy mid-century psychiatry in here. Ross Ashby, who coined the phrase “requisite variety”, also sought a “Blitzkrieg method” of treating his patients that might include “hypnosis, then LSD, and then ECT”. William Burroughs, who repeatedly pops up in the book as a voracious reader on the subject, would surely agree that “gentle reader, this prospect buggers the imagination.”
They called me a crazy radical. They said my methods were unsound. But now they beg me not to unleash my robots. Not quite. But now, the Chief Economist of the Bank of England agrees with me about the UK’s transition to a low-trust society.
“the reluctance today of some companies to borrow from their banks may be less a lack of demand and more a breakddown of trust”, which adversely effects “the efficient functioning of our economy”.