Thursday, 23 March 2017

Burning art - the latest Progressive initiative

I'm one of those people whose response to art is to say 'I know what I like' so don't take what follows as a piece of art criticism.

The painting in question is called 'Open Casket' and is by an artist called Dana Schutz. Here's one review:
The painting is based on a photograph of African American Emmett Till, laid in a coffin. The 14 year old young man was brutally murdered in 1955 for flirting with a white woman, his face horrifically disfigured in process. Earlier this year, it came out that the accuser, Carolyn Bryant, had lied and made the story up. The painting in question is a marvel to look at and currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. Schutz layers and builds paint in such a way that it appears economical even though she’s literally built a swollen lip out of paint.
So far, so good - and ever so right on. The problem is that Dana Schutz is white and, therefore, “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,”. As a result the author of that line has decided to go beyond mere criticism and to call for the painting's destruction:
UK-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black has launched a campaign demanding the Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket from the show, and calling for its destruction.
In a long and angst-ridden letter Ms Black explains that the terrible imagery in the painting - 'black pain' she calls it - might, in the event of the painting's sale, result in profit. Meaning that white people will have gained from the exploitation of that pain. And, moreover, that the artist should know better than to continue to use such expropriation. Dozens of fellow artists have lined up behind Ms Black in saying that the Whitney Gallery should remove and destroy the painting - though Ms Black has only allowed black artists to sign the letter.

It seems to me that, whatever the merits of the painting (and everyone, even Ms Black, seem to think is is powerful and well-executed) the idea that we destroy art because we don't like its message, its image or its artist simply takes these Progressive voices into the same world as the book burners of 1930s Germany or the Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Ms Black and others may see their cause as righteous but then so did those who, back in 1989, tried to ban Robert Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment" exhibition because it featured explicit gay sex. Or a thousand other examples of censorship by the state and other authorities - on grounds of taste, religion and the ethnicity of the artist.

It's fair to say that our Progressives are a bit mixed up over this:
Prior to that conversation, if you’d asked me if I thought it was a good idea for white artists to refrain from rendering certain racially charged subjects, I would have responded with a rant about how all this debate would lead only to white artists depicting black subjects less frequently. I’m not sure that position would have been wrong, but I’d now add the caveat that some subjects might be worth leaving alone. I write this knowing this road has “slippery slope” written all over it. After all, I’ve now written about this painting. Am I now profiting off black suffering too? I don’t think so, but then again it’s in my interest to think that.
Confusing eh? For my part I suspect that the politicised hypersensitivity of the black artists seeking the painting's destruction serves the cause of art badly and the idea of liberty not at all. Such actions merely reinforce the idea that offence and sensitivity must be policed, the very same idea that led to literature, music and art being suppressed by public censorship for its portrayal of women, gay men and sexual liberty. This is why - despite the arts world describing itself as such - I have called the protagonists here Progressives rather than liberals. Suggesting it is liberal to want a painting destroyed simply because the artist is white is the very opposite of of artistic freedom. Indeed it is little different to the idea, from another bunch of modernist illiberals, of degenerate art.


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Do we obsess too much about land?

Let's start by agreeing with this statement (and I think the recent Housing White Paper starts to help):
Secrecy surrounds much of the country’s land ownership. It’s time for the Land Registry database to be completed and opened up to all
And then let's not disappear down the rabbit hole of believing that somehow everything in our economy is ultimately derived from land ownership or that what matters is acres not five pound notes. This is the mistake that Guy Shrubsole makes in this article:
“The ownership of land,” wrote the 19th-century radical economist Henry George, “is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political and … the moral condition of a people.”

Who owns land matters. Landowners get to choose how their land is used, and that has big implications for almost everything: where we build our homes, how we grow our food, how much space we set aside for nature. Owning land confers wealth, status and often political power.
Shrubsole goes on to talk about how many acres the Ministry of Defence owns and how much of the UK is grouse moor. The thing is that, as even Henry George knew, what matters is land value not acreage. Self-described 'radicals' have an unhelpful obsession with how much land folk own rather than how much that land is worth. This obsession harks back to a nineteenth century viewpoint that saw land as the sole source of value and the ultimate store of wealth.

Housing covers just 10% of the UK's land but represents by far the largest proportion of land value (I appreciate that part of Guy Shrubsole's mission is to answer the question 'what's all that land worth'):
The value of all the homes in the UK has reached a record £6.8tn, nearly one-and-a-half times the value of all the companies on the London Stock Exchange.
Since agricultural land values are typically about 1% of housing land values meaning that, for a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate, the rest of the UK's land outside cities is worth between £600bn and £1tn. And, discounting mortgage lending, owner-occupied property accounts for £4.4tn of that value (65% of £6.8tn). Back in the 1880s when Henry George was writing, land value probably was in the hands of a relative few men. Today this just isn't true - for all the 'Generation Rent' stuff (and this really only applies to London and the South East) we remain a property owning society.

The problem is that George and other 'radicals' were focused on rents and saw that much of the UK's national income came in the form of rents to that land meaning that taxing land value represented an effective and fair way to tax those rents. Not only does most of the UK's land value - all those owner-occupied properties - not generate any actual cash rent but most people's income comes from the less aristocratic process of trade. And there is precious little link between trade and land values.

Nor does land ownership have very much to do with the UK's (or rather London and the South-East's) problems with housing supply. I'm pretty confident that, were we to designate some land currently used for agriculture as housing land, there will be some happy smiling land-owners. Grubsole talks about the housebuilders sitting on land, something that may or may not be true, but fails to recognise that the amount of land actually allocated for housing in the UK is tiny (less than 1% of the UK's land area) and the housebuilders own only a small part of that housing land.

Our obsession with landed estates strikes me as an unhelpful hangover from a time when these estates really were where the UK's land wealth was held. Those estates are still pretty big and pretty valuable but they are pretty marginal to the UK's economy - the existence or not of moorland maintained for shooting may be a public policy issue but it isn't a matter of any real consequence for the economy or indeed for the majority of the population. And, for all its importance, agriculture is similarly insignificant as an economic sector.

Overwhelmingly the value added in our economy - our national income - does not come in the form of rents and is not dependent in any way on land values, however much you contort the concept. Yet people still look back wistfully to those nineteenth century 'radicals' as if people actually want "three acres and a cow"! Today, our obsession with land only continues because the systems we've created to govern the use of land make it that way. Our planning system creates that huge disparity between agricultural values and development values, local taxes are based (admittedly poorly) on land values, and because house prices are a staple of private conversation the experts in real estate become a mix of celebrities and exploiters of innocent punters.

But it's not the grand acres that this system is bothered with but rather the millions of little plots on which our homes sit. That's where the 11 million mortgages worth £1.1tn are found not on Lord and Lady McMuck's hundred thousand acres of Scottish moorland. Yet Guy Grubsole and the land obsessed fret more about the latter than the former. I agree that knowing who owns stuff would be useful but let's not allow this to distort our view of the UK's wealth simply to satisfy some sort of agrarian radical wet dream based on a world long gone.


Monday, 20 March 2017

If Birmingham's a 'jihadi breeding ground' it's not a very good one

Islamist terrorism is undoubtedly a problem. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK's home grown Islamist terrorists nearly all come from with the Muslim community. This means that the largest such communities - Birmingham, Bradford, Luton and so forth - are more likely to produce terrorists.

Here's the Daily Mail:
Sparkbrook has become synonymous with Islamic extremism; one in ten of all Britain’s convicted Islamic terrorists, we now know, have come from Sparkbrook (population 30,000) and four adjoining council wards.

In total, these highly concentrated Muslim enclaves, occupying a few square miles of the city, have produced 26 of the country’s 269 known jihadis convicted in Britain of terror offences.
Over a fifth of Birmingham's population identified as Muslim in the 2011 census - that's about 250,000 people. And they are, as with most immigrant populations, concentrated:

That population - one of England's largest concentrations of Muslims - has produced just 10% of terrorists and the number (26) of those terrorists represents just 0.01% of the population. We should be vigilant, carry on working to prevent and protect, but this really doesn't tell us that Muslim communities are rife with budding terrorists and more than Jo Cox's murderer living on a council estate makes such places riddled with Nazi-sympathising nutters.

Confusing the dominant Deobandi version of Islam in Britian's Kashmiri population with ISIS is wrong, if at times understandable. Deobandi beliefs are very traditional and include very definite views about the role of women (and how they should dress), a reverence for the physical Qu'ran rather than its contents and an increasingly assertive approach to other Muslims who don't adhere to these positions. So when the Daily Mail describes Sparkbrook, it shows a scene that is familiar to anyone from my city of Bradford:
Visit the area and you’ll inevitably pass along Ladypool Road, the neighbourhood’s bustling main artery, at the centre of the Balti Triangle, so named because of the number of curry houses that line the pavement.

The shops are largely Islamic, too. There’s Only Hijab, the Islam Superstore and Kafe Karachi, to name a few. Dotted around Ladypool Road are 22 mosques, dominated by the twin minarets of Birmingham Central Mosque.
None of this suggests that somehow terrorists are being created by the presence of curry houses, hijab shops and an Asian cafe. Yet that is somehow the impression that is given - tens of thousands of perfectly ordinary Birmingham residents being categorised as some sort of problem because a tiny handful of men from that place committed terrorist offences.

The Mail is right to point at the manner in which Labour politicians pander to pressure from Deobandi organisations - Cllr Wazeem Jaffar and the four-year-old in the headscarf is a shocking example of indulging religious fundamentalism. But then the same politicians play a game of community politics unrecognisable to those of us campaigning in the rest of the country. And, yes, this is a problem - from electoral fraud through to grant-farming and favour-mongering - but it is not creating the basis for young men becoming Islamist terrorists.

In discussing the threat of Islamist terror - and there is a threat - we need to get away from the from the idea that mainstream Islam in the UK is promoting that terrorism. We should remember, and perhaps Birmingham is a good place to do this, that throughout its existence the IRA exploited sectarian sympathies and enjoyed the support of some Catholic priests. But this didn't make the rest of the Catholic population of England and Ireland complicit in the IRA's murder and terror. Islamist terror groups are no different, they exploit Muslim grievance (just as those Birmingham Labour councillors exploit the same grievances) and find some sympathetic voices. But what comes across most strongly is that so few - a tiny group - Muslims from Birmingham get involved in the world of Islamist terrorism.


Friday, 17 March 2017

Why we probably won't be moving to Kensington

So Kathryn and I are window shopping in South Kensington and, since this is the nature of high streets, we're peering through the glass at property for sale. Unlike most normal places, there aren't any actual houses for sale, just what seem to be identikit flats - some studio, some one-bed, some two-bed. All with white walls, wood (or wood-a-like) flooring, glass dining tables, uncomfortable looking sofas, and, if you're lucky, some singularly naff art. Plus a price tag north of £2 million quid.

What struck us (other than that stratospheric price tag) was the sameness, the lack of soul, the impression that no-one actually lived in any of these flats. But this isn't new build, these are apartments hacked out from a beautiful Georgian town house in a leafy London square. We meandered from estate agent to estate agent seeking out some property that looked like it was a little bit loved - perhaps with a rug to break up the monotony of wood-effect flooring (whatever happened to carpet), maybe something wooden like a coffee table or an antique chair.

Perhaps this sort of uninspired, bland and plain decor is what passes for style these days down in South Kensington. Maybe people are too busy doing all the other exciting things London offers (or else working all hours god sends to pay the mortgage on the £3 million pad off Queensgate). Or maybe this is what estate agents think sells flats - hard edges, pushed back furniture, minimal colour and devoid of life. None of those things we'd expect elsewhere - a peep of greenery, a bookcase (with books on), a mish-mash of art on the wall, things that show off or feature the age of the property.

Or maybe the sort of besuited, hard-nosed, driven men who work in South Kensington's estate agencies know their market and that anything looking like life, community and continuity will put off the sort of international whizz-kids who've got the brass to buy that South Kensington flat.

Had we a few million spare, we'd certainly consider a bolthole in London - it's a fantastic city. But I'm not sure that what we see in Kensington - and it's probably little different anywhere in Zone One - is inspiring, interesting or presented in a way that appeals. The housing is gorgeous - London's Georgian terraces are among the wonders of the world - but the flats hacked out of those gorgeous buildings seem to have killed the sense of age, heritage and tradition preferring instead a boring, pale, hard image that owes more to the international hotel than a real London living style.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Fake news tells us why scholarly publishing profits matter

It has been a bugbear of the increasingly left-wing word of academia that their work is published in paid-for scholarly journals resulting is successful businesses making significant profits (and employing thousands of clever products of those universities into the bargain). They say stuff like this:
It is easy at a high level to think about how knowledge could be unbundled, but once a framework is developed, then graduate students who were learning and reading past knowledge would be encouraged to translate their own information into the new framework. The knowledge could be freed from the bounds of journals without undermining all the curation and attribution work that goes with them. And at the same time, a searchable database that is open by design would exist not for articles, pages, or PDFs, but for the knowledge itself.
And my response is: yeah, and which bit of the fake news story sloshing around after Trump's election did you not understand? You need publishers and their journals because they provide assurance, a guarantee that the stuff therein isn't simply rubbish. And because this matters - indeed is absolutely central to the idea of academia - you want to make sure those publishers aren't tempted by fakery. So you let them earn their profits.


Sunday, 12 March 2017

Embracing disruption - why our approach to housing and transport regulation has to change

On the face of it, it's a good news story. Clever architects in Alabama have reimagined the house so it can be built for just $20,000. They're only small, not really so very different from that icon of American living space, the trailer, but these houses do represent some sort of progress.

Until of course you speak to a city planner, a banker, an insurance company. Then there's a problem:
"The most daunting problems aren't brick and mortar problems, they're these network and system problems that are threaded together and all intersect in the built environment," he says. "We're able to attack all these problems simultaneously—when we see a lever over here and wiggle it, we can very clearly see the implication it has on other systems down the road."
The barrier to, in this case, housing affordability isn't the prosaic task of building a home but rather the collection of systems, regulations, controls and vested interests that have grown up in our sophisticated societies. All of those systems of control exist for a good reason - in the case of housing they make sure that what's built is safe, doesn't harm neighbours, protects heritage and has regard to the environment. Looking at building codes (or regulations as us Brits calls them - for once using a longer word than US bureaucrats) each element, whether it's about wiring, pipes or the depth of foundations was purposive, put there to ensure safety or quality. The problem is that these codes are (because to work they have to be) inflexible - if it says something has to be 3-5mm then it has to be 3-5mm even if technology now means it only has to be 1-1.5mm.
"They're built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements. ... We're using material much more efficiently. But the problem is your local code official doesn't understand that. They look at the documents, and the house is immediately denied a permit simply because the code officials didn't understand it."
The issue here - and it's a significant one given the current rate of technological change, much of it disruptive - is that regulatory reform is a slow and painful process filled with all sorts of obstacles. It took the UK government three years to conduct a review of housing standards that didn't even touch the core of building regulations (although it did prevent local councils dreaming up their own 'tougher' regulations especially around environmental standards).

None of this is to suggest that regulation isn't a good idea but rather to recognise that technological change moves faster than regulatory reform and that often the barriers to that reform are as much about protecting the current systems (and those who profit from them) as they are about ensuring safety and environmental protection. Although I've been talking about housebuilding, the same issues apply to other targets of technological disruption such as taxis, hotels and retail distribution - the regulatory environment is captured by the business and their public sector 'clients'.

Here's an example from Barcelona:
Like other big tourist destinations around the world (for example Berlin and San Francisco), Barcelona is struggling to cope with the influx of millions of tourists each year, many of them staying in short-term rental accommodation, which the local authorities say causes community strife, encourages speculation, and prices locals out of the city by driving up housing costs and limiting the supply of homes for rent.
Pretty straightforward - the city government in the Catalan capital is acting to prevent that community strive and guard against unaffordability. It isn't anything to do with collecting taxes or protecting the interests of existing providers. After all there's a housing shortage in Barcelona?
Barcelona has 283,155 vacant homes, 11% of the total, and 311,653 rented homes, 17.8%, while the defaults on leases have grown by 22.7% compared to the previous study, to stand at an average of 12,897 euros.
So, while rents in Barcelona are sky high and they're clamping down on Airbnb, there are quarter of a million empty homes. This isn't to have a go at Barcelona but rather to illustrate how protecting systems (precisely what that city's left wing mayor says she isn't doing) results in protection of existing interests - in this case hotel owners and landlords of high-priced city centre property.

Our problem is that what we already have in place - in its widest sense, infrastructure - is either vulnerable to digital disruption or else prevents that disruption taking place. And because the regulatory systems track that infrastructure and are difficult to change, other places without such constraints (or with autocratic governments) are able to move more quickly. Worse still, and this is very evident in housing and transport, those profiting from the existing system - or persuaded by politicians that its loss will harm them as we've seen in Barcelona - agitate for extending regulations to capture or prevent disruptive technology.

The new technologies - all that disruptive digital stuff especially - will eventually succeed because they meet consumer demand for things such as cheaper travel and accommodation. What's missing from our regulatory response is a preference for embracing that disruption. Instead, we seek out reasons not to allow a $20,000 house, a cheaper and safer form of taxi or a flexible low-cost means to stay in otherwise unaffordable places. And, as those empty homes in expensive Barcelona attest, our housing markets are crying out for disruption. All our zoning, building codes and planning rules act to prevent this change - making the land, the materials and the labour more expensive and forcing us to spend further billions in incentives and subsidy to stop the whole thing falling over again.

In Bradford we've acres of inner city 'development' land that's mostly just sitting there mouldering. We know there's demand - one local organisation had over 200 enquiries for a handful of new build properties for sale (but no buyers as once you've paid for the land and built the house the price is too high) - but the way we build and the cost of land makes it uneconomic. New approaches such as that $20,000 Alabama house or the prospect of 3D printed homes could work on this land if we purchased it and cleared it - perhaps that would be a better use of Community Infrastructure Levy and affordable housing commuted sums that sticking it into the existing system of housing development.

To make this work - and to make future transport systems work too - we need to design flexibility into regulatory systems allowing greater discretion for individual regulators. We also need to stop doubling-down on failed systems whether it's Barcelona's approach to holiday lets or Palo Alto's crazy planning system. The first question should be 'does this make most people's lives better' not 'can I find someone who doesn't like it' and to create regulations to match when the answer to that first question is 'yes'.


Monday, 6 March 2017

An Evil Marketer comments on data analytics in political campaigning

Back in the 1970s a man called Richard Webber was working at the UK government's centre for Environmental Studies. This, more or less, was what he was doing:
I created Acorn, the first neighbourhood classification system, while working at the government's Centre for Environmental Studies in the 1970s.

People ask how it came to be a commercial application. I had organised a seminar for local authorities to show how neighbourhood data could identify areas of deprivation. Quite by chance, it attracted Ken Baker, a sampling specialist from BMRB. He was a lateral thinker and he came up with the idea that the Acorn tool would be useful for market research sampling.

I meanwhile had realised that Acorn could help predict the households most likely to respond to direct mail and door drops.
Without wanting to come over all geeky, Webber had used census data combined with the electoral register to create a classification of small neighbourhoods (based on census enumeration districts, the base geography for the national census). The principle of Webber's classification is essentially that 'birds of a feather flock together' - people in Manchester who have the same census characteristics as people in Bristol will tend to have other similar behavioural characteristics including, of course, purchasing preferences.

I know you're asking what all this has to do with Brexit (or indeed voting in general). The thing is that, as well as Webber's classification of residential neighbourhoods capturing similarities in terms of how people might respond to different marketing offers, the system also applies to the matter of how we vote. If the 'birds of a feather' principle is correct then similar areas will have similar voting behaviour.

By the end of the 1980s, we were using geodemographics (as Webber's system became known) to combine with proprietary data on customers to refine the targeting of direct marketing campaign, to improve the selection of retail sites and to manage advertising better. Without wanting to overcomplicate, customer address data was given an ACORN code and then profiled using initially a simple index (where 100 = National Average). The indices were reported at the level of postal sector (i.e. BD11 2 or ME2 7) as these were large enough to give the index validity but small enough to facilitate fine grain targeting.

For a targeted doordrop we might then take the top 300 postal sectors and, through the Royal Mail, purchase a delivery of unaddressed mail. Typically, results showed an uplift in response of 2x or 3x depending on the client. Results were less good for targeted direct mail using the electoral register - mostly because a key behavioural characteristic, responsiveness, was not captured in census data. We played other games using expert systems and the early days of data-mining too - it was just a lot slower back then!

The generation of geodemographic systems that followed the original census-based ACORN system (e.g. SuperProfiles, MOSAIC) began to add in other large data sources such as credit data and 'psychographic' survey data - some may recall the retailed questionnaires incentivised with free prize draws that collected this information. Targeting extended beyond shared residential characteristics to details about financial services, indebtedness and preferences around holidays, cars, fmcg products and lifestyle choices (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.).

Unsurprisingly, political parties began to make use of these systems to improve the targeting of election campaigning especially in areas where they lacked good quality 'voting intention' (VI) data. The same essential methodology was used as that I was using for mail order and financial services companies - a database of VI details was profiles against MOSAIC to provide improved campaign targeting in places with no canvass. This might be used on a national basis to decide which local council by-elections to target or at the constituency level to improve the effectiveness of limited resources thereby allowing the broadening of target seat campaigns.

Which I guess brings us to this conclusion from an article about a marketing analytics business who may or may not have been active during the recent EU Referendum:
Is it the case that our elections will increasingly be decided by the whims of billionaires, operating in the shadows, behind the scenes, using their fortunes to decide our fate?
To appreciate why this is unlikely, we need to go back to how marketing analytics work, which is at the aggregate level. I appreciate, as a marketing professional, how we all want to believe advertising has become like the opening scenes in Minority Report but the reality is that aggregate data really doesn't provide the means to manipulate what we think. Rather, geodemographics, psychographics and marketing analytics enable us marketers to better target those people who are already predisposed to buy our product (or vote for our cause).

The big change from the stuff we were doing with mag tapes and mainframe computers in 1989 is the availability of information from social media (most usually Facebook). Again this is aggregate data - Facebook doesn't sell your details to marketing analytics businesses - but the sophistication of the data makes the targeting of messages all the more precise as does the ability to analyse public profiles without Facebook's permission. But even with this level of analysis, we still haven't 'manipulated' your opinion merely targeted our message more precisely to people more likely to respond positively to that message.

We are right to express concerns about whether the use of analytics has crossed over into misuse of personal data and it appears the UK's Information Commissioner is doing just that. But the likely truth (given it is not in Facebook's interest to share personal data and this is illegal in the EU) is that analytics companies are simply doing just what we were doing as direct marketers 30 years ago - using information to target our messages a little better. Back then it was all seen as a bit sinister ('where did you get my name from...') and nothing has changed except that there's more information, faster computers and social media. You can always find a computing academic (note, not a marketer) do do the full on evil empire stuff:
A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”
The truth is a deal more prosaic. Marketers ask customers about their lives, social media use and so forth then profile this against aggregate data from various sources to produce targeting information - where geographically or behaviourally we can go looking for folk like those customers we've surveyed. I so want us marketers and ad men to be master manipulators, able to switch your mind at the push of an analytical button or the twitch of an algorhithm. But we're not like that at all, we're not even that good at using big data.