(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘policy

“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline


As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Demographics are destiny”*…

And demographics can help us shape our destiny…

The research seemed straightforward: Analyze 2020 death records in Minnesota and, among other things, quantify which deaths were attributable to Covid-19 in various slices of the population — young and old, black and white, people living in advantaged versus disadvantaged neighborhoods.

But when University of Minnesota demographer Elizabeth Wrigley-Field began to dig in, the numbers revealed complex trends.

The records showed that last year more Minnesotans — especially non-whites — died at home than in a typical year, having avoided hospitals because of the pandemic. Such deaths were almost never reported as Covid-related, even though many probably were. The analysis suggested that Covid deaths in minority groups were going underreported.

It’s the sort of intriguing finding that is likely to percolate to the surface more frequently as researchers study Covid-19 from a population — or demographic — perspective.

Soon after the pandemic hit, demographers leaped into action. Today, there are studies afoot to examine a broad swath of inquiry: from questions about life expectancy to whether school closures really averted infections to how a single Covid death affects surviving family members’ physical and mental health. Even the relationship between exercise habits and social-distancing trends in US counties is under scrutiny…

A sample of the findings that could– and surely should– shape the future of public health: “Demographers tackle Covid-19,” from Eryn Brown (@TheErynBrown).

[Via David Kotok]

* Arthur Kemp, Peter Peterson, Bill Campbell, and many others


As we count on counting, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that the U.K. recorded its first automotive fatality. While on a terrace in the grounds of Crystal Palace, London, Mrs. Bridget Driscoll was knocked down by a car owned by the Anglo-French Motor Car (Roger-Benz) Company that was giving demonstration rides to the public, driven by employee Arthur Edsell. It was said that he was talking to the young lady passenger beside him. He had had been driving for only 3 weeks, and had tampered with a belt to cause the car to travel faster than the 4 mph to which it was meant to be limited. After a six-hour inquest, the jury’s verdict was “Accidental Death,” and no prosecution resulted against the driver or the company. The first car-driver crash fatality in Britain occurred in 1898.

Mrs. Driscoll, circled


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 17, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”*…

Mental models can be helpful, but they can also obscure as much as they reveal…

“The era of big government is over,” then-US President Bill Clinton proclaimed in 1996. But President Joe Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar spending plans are suggesting precisely the opposite. Behind the politicians stand the policy gurus, eager to put their names on – as the fashionable phrase goes – a new “policy paradigm.”

Paradigm-peddlers have not yet settled on a single label for the post-pandemic era, but frothy ideas abound. Countries should “build back better,” but only after a “great reset.” Economic growth used to be a pretty good thing on its own; these days, it is unmentionable in polite company unless it is “inclusive, equitable, and sustainable.” (I can see why, but must all three adjectives always be strung together?)

Harvard University’s Dani Rodrik was right to argue recently that we should beware of economists bearing policy paradigms. Such frameworks are supposed to organize thinking, but more often than not they substitute for it.

Consider a paradigm that the pandemic is supposed to have killed: neoliberalism. Neoliberal once meant a particular approach to free-market economics. Applying the description to leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan made some sense. But in current parlance, the term also applies to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and the social democrats who have governed Chile for 24 of the last 30 years – in fact, to anyone who thinks markets have some role to play in human affairs.

Through repeated, careless use, neoliberal has now become one of those words that, as George Orwell said, “are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.”

But meaningless is not the same as useless. If a speaker at an academic seminar, policy conference, or cocktail party tars someone as a neoliberal, two messages are immediately clear: the speaker is good, and the target is bad, unconcerned with the plight of the downtrodden. Tarring someone with this particular epithet is virtue-signaling par excellence. It marks the speaker as a member of a progressive tribe concerned about the world’s poor.

The right has its own ideological identity markers. In the debate about Obamacare and health insurance in the United States, or about vouchers for school funding anywhere, anyone claiming to support “freedom of choice” is not just making a point, but also sending a signal.

Both freedom and choice have multiple meanings that philosophers have been debating at least since classical Greek times: freedom to or freedom from? Choice to do what? Is someone with little money or education really “free to choose,” as the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman used to say? In fact, today’s freedom-of-choice advocates probably do not want to pursue those ancient and endless debates; they are simply signaling their membership in the ideological free-market tribe.

As the world seeks to ensure recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, simplistic political and economic ideologies will not lead to effective policymaking. Rodrik rightly pines for economic thinking that is unbeholden to cliché or to narrow identity politics. As he says, “The right answer to any policy question in economics is, ‘It depends.’” Circumstances matter, and the devil is in the details. 

I want the same thing as Rodrik, but you can’t always get what you want. Because nowadays (at least outside Trumpian circles) identities based on race or religion are unacceptable, ideologies have become the last refuge of the identity-seeking and politically savvy scoundrel, and new economic paradigms the weapon of choice…

In the old joke, a man walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, “Doctor, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken.” The doctor says, “Why don’t you bring him to me?” And the man replies, “I would, but I need the eggs.” 

Political ideologies can be crazy, and those who peddle them often behave like chickens. But how we crave those eggs…

Simplistic political and economic ideologies that serve as identity markers will not lead to effective policymaking; but something in human psychology makes many crave them anyway: “The Perils of Paradigm Economics,” from Andrés Velasco (@AndresVelasco).

[image above: source]

* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language


As we acknowledge nuance, we might send qualified birthday greetings to Sidney James Webb; he was born on this date in 1859. An economist, he was an early member of the Fabian Society (joining, like George Bernard Shaw, three months after its founding). He co-founded the London School of Economics (where Andrés Velasco is currently Dean of the School of Public Policy), and wrote the original, pro-nationalisation Clause IV for the British Labour Party.

A committed socialist, Webb and his wife Beatrice were staunch supporters of the Soviet Union and its communist program. Ignoring the mounting evidence of atrocities in the USSR in favor of their commitment to the concept of collectivism, they wrote Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935) and The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942), both positive assessments of Stalin’s regime. The Trotskyist historian Al Richardson later described Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? as “pure Soviet propaganda at its most mendacious.”


“Agriculture engenders good sense, and good sense of an excellent kind”*…

In an influential 1943 essay, Polish economist Michał Kalecki staged a contest between capitalism’s pursuit of profit and its pursuit of power. While the benefits of government-sponsored full employment would benefit capitalists economically, Kalecki argued, it would also fundamentally threaten their social position—and the latter mattered more. If wide sections of the country came to believe that the government could replace the private sector as a source of investment and even hiring, capitalists would have to relinquish their role as the ultimate guardians of national economic health, and along with it their immense power over workers. Kalecki thus saw how the desire to maintain political dominance could override purely economic considerations.

This analysis finds a striking illustration in historian Ariel Ron’s award-winning new book Grassroots Leviathan, which advances a major reinterpretation of the contours of U.S. political economy and the origins of the U.S. developmental state—the government institutions that have played an active role in shaping economic and technological growth. In Ron’s revisionist account, the groundwork for the rapid economic development in the second half of the nineteenth century was less industrial and elite than agricultural and popular. “Despite the abiding myth that the Civil War pitted an industrial North against an agrarian South,” he writes, “the truth is that agriculture continued to dominate the economic, social, and cultural lives of the majority of Americans well into the late nineteenth century.” This central fact—at odds with familiar portraits of a dwindling rural population in the face of sweeping urban industrialization—carried with it shifting attitudes toward the state and the economy, dramatically altering the course of U.S. politics. Far from intrinsically opposed to government, a consequential strain of agrarianism welcomed state intervention and helped developed new ideas about the common good…

How a grassroots movement of American farmers laid the foundation for state intervention in the economy, embracing government investment and challenging the slaveholding South in the run-up to the Civil War: “In the Common Interest.”

Joseph Joubert


As we hone our history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1952 that Mylar was registered as a DuPont trademark. A very strong polyester film that has gradually replaced cellophane, Mylar is is put to many purposes, but main among them– given it’s strength, flexibility, and properties as an aroma barrier, it’s widely used in food packaging.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say”*…

There’s a depressing sort of symmetry in the fact that our modern paradigms of privacy were developed in response to the proliferation of photography and their exploitation by tabloids. The seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article The Right to Privacy—which every essay about data privacy is contractually obligated to cite—argued that the right of an individual to object to the publication of photographs ought to be considered part of a general ‘right to be let alone’.

30 years on, privacy is still largely conceived of as an individual thing, wherein we get to make solo decisions about when we want to be left alone and when we’re comfortable being trespassed upon. This principle undergirds the notice-and-consent model of data management, which you might also know as the pavlovian response to click “I agree” on any popup and login screen with little regard for the forty pages of legalese you might be agreeing to.

The thing is, the right to be left alone makes perfect sense when you’re managing information relationships between individuals, where there are generally pretty clear social norms around what constitutes a boundary violation. Reasonable people can and do disagree as to the level of privacy they expect, but if I invite you into my home and you snoop through my bedside table and read my diary, there isn’t much ambiguity about that being an invasion.

But in the age of ✨ networked computing ✨, this individual model of privacy just doesn’t scale anymore. There are too many exponentially intersecting relationships for any of us to keep in our head. It’s no longer just about what we tell a friend or the tax collector or even a journalist. It’s the digital footprint that we often unknowingly leave in our wake every time we interact with something online, and how all of those websites and apps and their shadowy partners talk to each other behind our backs. It’s the cameras in malls tracking our location and sometimes emotions, and it’s the license plate readers compiling a log of our movements.

At a time when governments and companies are increasingly investing in surveillance mechanisms under the guise of security and transparency, that scale is only going to keep growing. Our individual comfort about whether we are left alone is no longer the only, or even the most salient part of the story, and we need to think about privacy as a public good and a collective value.

I like thinking about privacy as being collective, because it feels like a more true reflection of the fact that our lives are made up of relationships, and information about our lives is social and contextual by nature. The fact that I have a sister also indicates that my sister has at least one sibling: me. If I took a DNA test through 23andme I’m not just disclosing information about me but also about everyone that I’m related to, none of whom are able to give consent. The privacy implications for familial DNA are pretty broad: this information might be used to sell or withhold products and services, expose family secrets, or implicate a future as-yet-unborn relative in a crime. I could email 23andme and ask them to delete my records, and they might eventually comply in a month or three. But my present and future relatives wouldn’t be able to do that, or even know that their privacy had been compromised at all.

Even with data that’s less fraught than our genome, our decisions about what we expose to the world have externalities for the people around us. I might think nothing of posting a photo of going out with my friends and mentioning the name of the bar, but I’ve just exposed our physical location to the internet. If one of my friends has had to deal with a stalker in their past, I could’ve put their physical safety at risk. Even if I’m careful to make the post friends-only, the people I trust are not the same as the people my friends trust. In an individual model of privacy, we are only as private as our least private friend.

Amidst the global pandemic, this might sound not dissimilar to public health. When I decide whether to wear a mask in public, that’s partially about how much the mask will protect me from airborne droplets. But it’s also—perhaps more significantly—about protecting everyone else from me.

Data collection isn’t always bad, but it is always risky. Sometimes that’s due to shoddy design and programming or lazy security practices. But even the best engineers often fail to build risk-free systems, by the very nature of systems.

Systems are easier to attack than they are to defend. If you want to defend a system, you have to make sure every part of it is perfectly implemented to guard against any possible vulnerabilities. Oftentimes, trying to defend a system means adding additional components, which just ends up creating more potential weak points. Whereas if you want to attack, all you have to do is find the one weakness that the systems designer missed. (Or, to paraphrase the IRA, you only have to be lucky once.)

This is true of all systems, digital or analog, but the thing that makes computer systems particularly vulnerable is that the same weaknesses can be deployed across millions of devices, in our phones and laptops and watches and toasters and refrigerators and doorbells. When a vulnerability is discovered in one system, an entire class of devices around the world is instantly a potential target, but we still have to go fix them one by one.

This is how the Equifax data leak happened. Equifax used a piece of open source software that had a security flaw in it, the people who work on that software found it and fixed it, and instead of diligently updating their systems Equifax hit the snooze button for four months and let hackers steal hundreds of millions of customer records. And while Equifax is definitely guilty of aforementioned lazy security practices, this incident also illustrates how fragile computer systems are. From the moment this bug was discovered, every server in the world that ran that software was at risk.

What’s worse, in many cases people weren’t even aware that their data was stored with Equifax. If you’re an adult who has had a job or a phone bill or interacted with a bank in the last seven years, your identifying information is collected by Equifax whether you like it or not. The only way to opt out would have been to be among the small percentage of overwhelmingly young, poor, and racialized people who have no credit histories, which significantly limits the scope of their ability to participate in the economy. How do you notice-and-consent your way out of that?

There unfortunately isn’t one weird trick to save democracy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons we can learn from history to figure out how to protect privacy as a public good. The scale and ubiquity of computers may be unprecedented, but so is the scale of our collective knowledge…

Read the full piece (and you should) for Jenny Zhang‘s (@phirephoenix) compelling case that we should treat– and protect– privacy as a public good, and explanation of how we might do that: “Left alone, together.” TotH to Sentiers.

[image above: source]

* Edward Snowden


As we think about each other, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that the first government appropriation was made to the support the construction of the Harvard Mark I computer.

Designer Howard Aiken had enlisted IBM as a partner in 1937; company chairman Thomas Watson Sr. personally approved the project and its funding. It was completed in 1944 (and put to work on a set war-related tasks, including calculations– overseen by John von Neumann— for the Manhattan Project). 

The Mark I was the industry’s largest electromechanical calculator… and it was large: 51 feet long, 8 feet high, and 2 feet deep; it weighed about 9,445 pounds  The basic calculating units had to be synchronized and powered mechanically, so they were operated by a 50-foot (15 m) drive shaft coupled to a 5 horsepower electric motor, which served as the main power source and system clock. It could do 3 additions or subtractions in a second; a multiplication took 6 seconds; a division took 15.3 seconds; and a logarithm or a trigonometric function took over a minute… ridiculously slow by today’s standards, but a huge advance in its time.


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