Maurizio – Omnologos

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Archive for May 2006

Do services degenerate faster in an informal economy?

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In conventional thinking, there are many advantages in living in a formal economy, where entrepreneurs and laborers work together according to established rules agreed by everybody through the involvement of the State.

This is supposed to guarantee fairness and more recently, a widespread care system centered around protecting the poorest, most vulnerable and the most elderly members of the society

On the other hand, a more or less completely informal economy is the day-to-day experience of hundreds of millions if not billions of fellow humans, especially (but by no means only) in so-called emerging and developing Countries.

In an informal economy, certain types of income and the means of their generation are “unregulated by the institutions of society, in a legal and social environment in which similar activities are regulated.”

It is usually a sign that the State is locally very weak. So income (including salaries) is received without paying taxes; work arrangements do or do not follow lawful standards, there is no apparent provision for old-age pension

And more often than not, one has to have cash at hand to guarantee speedy treatment of one’s issue for example in a state court: in what we call corruption

However scandalous to the average well-disposed thinker, this is a system that a) is very widespread and b) appears to be working more or less smoothly. In fact, there is an element of trust: however small or big the bribery, it would not get paid if the service would then not be provided

This obviously applies to specific cases. You can call it “salary informalisation”, where things get done quickly only when the “customer” pays directly into the pocket of the employee on the other side of the counter, rather than through the State for example via taxes.

Other circumstances are completely different: think of the police officer that threatens to impound the car unless offered money; the politician cutting 15% on a nation’s foreign contracts, “otherwise they won’t get signed”

These are two different kinds of corruption. The former is about asking additional money in order to provide a service. The latter is greedy intimidation into paying in order to avoid getting oneself into a dangerous position. This is far worse, as it sucks money away with very little to show in return

Corruption as parasitical intimidation is what stiff sentences and worldwide campaigns against corruption should concentrate on

What are the drawbacks then of the more benign kind of corruption, the “salary informalisation”? At first glance, it is quite tempting to accept it. If (and when) it works, it is much more efficient than having to deal with a far-away incorporeal entity called “the State”. Even fairness can be far superior than in the formal economy, as rules are ready to be renegotiated and can be bent to be just in every occasion, not only as described by the necessarily incomplete Law.

The problem is of course in those two words: IF and WHEN. An informal economy works well only as long as there is no excess of abuse on one side or the other: otherwise the requisite of fairness disappears, and we fall back in the “corruption as greed” trap.

And in fact, is not that what too easily happens when the Rules and the Laws are not enforced appropriately, exactly when the State is too weak to do so? Worse, the usual cures evolved the world over can be worse than the malady: as soon as “Groups of Mutual Help” arise to protect the members against unfair treatment, their intentions are hijacked turning them into Mafias, with further damage to the economy

This is not a necessity. But an informal economy is simply too fragile: its services may disappear at the whim of the providers, and organized crime can only thrive without a clear, enforced set of rules called the Law

An informal economy can never be considered a good, healthy economy

Written by omnologos

2006/May/24 at 23:52:23

What’s wrong with Development Studies?

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It is hard to think “Development Studies” (“DS”) as a proper “science” at the moment.

In fact, the one thing that comes out clearly of a rapid analysis of the evolution of DS thinking, is that most if not all “Development Breakthroughs” look much like a “flavour of the decade” list rather than solid processes valid most of the time

Here’s a quick review:

  • 1950s “Development” substituted colonialism as a way for Western countries to keep control and a presence, also against the Communist threat
  • 1960s “Rising income with own growth”. Huge investments in infrastructure. Large loans from private sources, but growth did not take into account distribution
  • 1970s Focus on poverty and “basic needs” with redistribution. Further borrowing
  • 1980s Switch to aid as poverty of people and States became entrenched. World Bank and IMF pushed for Structural Adjustment Programs. Start of NGOs
  • 1990s “Development” started to include non-financial indicators (Freedom, Democracy, Environment Damage). Focus on participatory programs.
  • 2000s Idea of the State back in focus. “Development” as power dynamics, considering also Women and Universities

What shall then we make of today’s mantras of DS such as Beneficiary Participation, Gender Issues, etc etc?

Obviously I am not suggesting they are not worthwhile and appropriate.

But what’s out there to indicate they will not simply be substituted by new fads, in a few years?

And of course the big counterpoint is that the one and only thing that has changed, ever, is the “Own Interest” of the most powerful countries, ready to defend it no matter what (and no matter what their stated intentions on getting people out of poverty)

This is doubly disturbing, if we consider that at the end of the day enormous resources will keep being wasted in following the latest fashion, rather than in making people get out of a life of poverty and high risk

A thorough rethinking of the whole field of Development and Development Studies is in order

Written by omnologos

2006/May/24 at 00:07:12

Support Iran’s nuclear rights

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or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb

By all means let Iran build their own nuclear bombs in the open

  1. To argue against that sounds very hypocritical when done by the USA or worse, the UK and France
  2. Nobody in Iran is going to use the Bomb against Israel or anybody else unless attacked. For three reasons: 1) Israel is too big to be brought down by a single nuclear bomb; 2) the missile will surely destroy a whole lot of Palestinians too, and perhaps the Dome of the Rock; and 3) immediate massive retaliation by the US would remove Iran from history
  3. There is a long history of attacks against Iran in the last 3 centuries or so, and no occasion at all of Iran being the attacker
  4. They are going to get it anyway. As a known Israeli intelligence expert recently remarked, they’d be fool not to
  5. Chances of a bomb falling into al-Qaeda hands are minimal. Again, any use of any bomb would cause massive US retaliation, obviously against the provider of the Bomb if it were Iran
  6. It is much better to get nuclear facilities “in the open” rather than hidden away
  7. Anybody trying to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear program now would have to kill lots of innocent bystanders in giant bombing campaign(s) (presumably a few H-bombs would do, but again, there is no attacking use for a nuclear bomb)
  8. Talks of sanctions by the UN should be set aside for decency reasons, after the terrible Iraq Embargo fiasco (and embezzlement)

If only everybody would stop threatening Iran, there could be some serious start of negotiations. But the present situation is simply too convenient for all sides. I guess it’s always dangerous when the “enemies” strongly agree on the fact that God is on their side

Written by omnologos

2006/May/23 at 23:47:26

Posted in International, Politics

The Biggest Hypocrisies

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How many pretenses do we really have to live with?

1. “Third World Development”? In truth it is just old-style Colonialism under a new guise. Proof is the fact that so few “Developing Countries” have been able to “emerge”: and no Emerging Country has been able to get its seat with the “Big Powers” (China is a special case due to sheer size). So the biggest result of decades of “development” may really be that things are more or less exactly the way they were
2. “Liberal Democracy”? Instead, it keeps evolving into the rule by a self-perpetuating oligarchy. See the creation of personality-based powerful parties in France and Italy; and the obscene number of sons and daughters of former Presidents and other politicians, kind of inheriting from their parents their supposedly elected positions
3. “The War On Drugs”? Only pea-brained idiots will not agree that such a “war” has been won, by drug cartels and mafias the world over. Completely but hopefully unwillingly forgetful of the Prohibition disaster in 1920s’ USA, we have spend money like there is no tomorrow, in what can only be described as an elaborate plot to finance the traffickers
4. “Public Service”? In reality, it is better described as “minimal-cost appeasement” as most of the time, it provides no service at all, as its efficiency is measured more on how much money has been saved, rather than the quality of assistance provided to people in need
5. “Reality TV”? It is nothing of the sort. Television may be portraying “real” happenings by using a Candid Camera, perhaps, but definitely no sane person in the world would “act naturally” and “realistically” with a light, camera and sound crew openly working in their immediate proximity. The only hope to see “reality” is if the characters forget the existence of all those cabled people around. But then, it is just Television, a sort of enhanced theatre where things happen because of their entertainment value
6. “The Ethical State”? And then it becomes Hell on Earth. How many times do we need to repeat the horrendous mistakes of early XX century, where otherwise good and intelligent people devised, approved, encouraged and enacted crimes in the name of eugenics, i.e. their hope into making the world a better place and the humans a better race? And so we should steer quite clear of any simplistic thinking on how to improve ourselves and the planet, especially when single-minded: just as, contrarily to what suggested by D.H. Lawrence, urban poverty cannot be seriously solved by gassing all poor in a building as big as the old Crystal Palace
7. “Christian Love”? And so why then it transforms itself so easily into unbounded cruelty, of the sort that tries to impede couples from loving each other even if of the same gender? And that has worked hard, eg in Italy, to make artificial insemination almost impossible to succeed, in the name of protecting the lives of the fetuses that now will never be born? And that pretends to solve the issue of abortion by prescribing what should not be done? And finally that happily leaves people suffer in unspeakable agony, only to defend a right to live in a way that transforms it into an obligation to be tortured by one’s own body?
8. “Islamic Fundamentalism”? If only! In the last two decades or so, all self-appointed defenders of Islam have been extremely successful…at killing fellow Muslims. Think of the all the dead locals after the bomb outside the US embassy in Tanzania. Think of the untold number of Algerians killed during the Civil War in the 1990s. Think of the vast majority of victims in almost all Egyptian terrorist act. Think of the Palestinian wedding mysteriously targeted for the 2005 bombs in Amman, Jordan. And think of the Muslim children killed during the attack against the foreigners’ compound in Saudi Arabia’s capital
9. “War on Terror”? What is coming up is instead the repositioning of governmental power in the USA, in the UK, in Europe and elsewhere. Governments of all colours and tastes appear all over the world to have tried to infiltrate the private lives of their citizens more than ever before. The only thing they haven’t justified with the “war on terror” appears to be open-ended proctology. For the rest, eavesdropping, hidden cameras, additional paperwork, complicated passports, not to mention the muzzling of dissent even in London’s Parliament Square. And who’s going to dare stopping them, for the fear of being labeled a terrorist, or worse, an appeaser of terrorists
10. “Logic-based Evaluation”? It would be ridiculous were it not so sad and pernicious. All kinds of company and governmental decisions and strategies appear on paper to be the result of a wide consultation with all interested parties. Too bad then they are usually so efficient in confirming the prejudices of whoever’s in charge. There is simply too much of what we do that ends in the hand of the finest speaker rather than the needy

And here even more hypocrisies are out there in the open:

a. They call “Exporting Democracy” another way of getting control of an area whilst blowing the potential “voters” to pieces
b. They call “Environmental Protection” the fixation of considering anything done by humans as “toxic”. In the meanwhile, carbon-emission-reduction schemes provide additional financing to…big oil companies
c. They say “Sport” is a physical competition where specific ethics make it a fun and fair environment. Too bad it’s just another giant entertainment biz, opiating large masses in submission, making them discharge their violent selves around a green field rather than on the grey tarmac of a city
d. They call it “The Israeli-Palestinian Peace process” what is obviously a mad rush before things get settled, a grab-and-bomb-while-you-can
e. They say they are developing “New Drugs”, when a great part of them is a bunch of pointless substitutions no one needed

Written by omnologos

2006/May/23 at 06:39:29

A Mole of Bytes

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(aka the Dig-The-Gigabyte Campaign)

Is computing rapidly turning itself into a hi-tech version of Howard Stern’s famous “Who Wants to be a Turkish Billionaire?” ?

My son asked me yesterday to explain what is a “Gigabyte”. I tried to describe the meaning of a little bit more than a billion tiny little things hidden in a PC. But then I stopped quickly: how was I going to clarify the meaning of having forty of those “gigabytes” in my laptop’s hard drive alone? And 200 of them in my desktop computer. And a thousand of them (a terabyte) in the latest high-spec PC

And at current growth rates, hard-disk capacity is increasing 10-fold every 5 years. It is perfectly clear then that by the time he’s 19 in 2021, we will have to cope with the impossibility of comprehending what we’ve got, and silly-sounding terms like petabytes (well, it sounds like 8-bit flatulence in Italian anyway)

From there onwards it’s going to be exabytes in 2035, zettabytes in 2050 and I’ll be turning 100 literally in yoda-yoda-land (yottabytes, some million billion billion bytes that will grace our computers in the middle of the 2060)

There is however no need for all this aggravation…let’s learn from Chemistry and dear old Avogadro’s Number

So here’s my proposal:

1. Dig the Giga, Tera, Peta, Etcetc-bytes asap

2. Define a Mole of Bytes as 6.023x(10 to the power of 23) of them

3. Resize the capacities now. Say, a 100 Gigabyte disk becomes a mere 166 femtoMole. To sport even 100 Terabytes of storage area, will only mean less than 200 picoMoles of Bytes

This will surely give some renewed perspective to the whole business of visualizing trends in computing, and show that there is a long long way ahead before we can declare ourselves satisfied with our computational powers

UPDATE: there is now a blog dedicated to the “Mole of Bytes” idea. And some interesting thoughts from DARPA.

Written by omnologos

2006/May/22 at 01:19:33

Posted in Computing, Innovation

Help the EU save some money…

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…for once!

The European Parliament should be located in Brussels

It costs European taxpayers approximately 200 million euros a year to move the Parliament between Brussels/Belgium and Strasbourg/France. As a citizen of the European Union, I want the European Parliament to be located only in Brussels.

MEP's from different parties are behind the initiative

Please sign the on-line petition. It surely won't hurt. As of this moment there are already 60,000 signatories

And if we "need" the Strasbourg building because we "have to", let the French Government pay the whole bill

Written by omnologos

2006/May/20 at 00:41:57

Posted in Democracy, EU, Politics

Grant Lotteries to Nurture Innovation

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Wouldn't it make much more sense if scientific/development/other kinds of grants would be partially allocated via an open-to-everybody lottery?

I am talking about setting aside, say, 10% of the yearly budget and get it assigned on the basis of a lottery, instead than around policy guidelines

Such a lottery would be open to any applicant for whatever project, no matter how "logical" or "mainstream". I would only make restrictions against past winners that obviously mishandled the money

Why that? On the one hand, current "rational", "impersonal" committee-based decision-making processes can only encourage conformism.

And naturally so: if every decision must be carefully weighed and justified, committees will prefer to finance stuff that is well-accepted, and almost sure to show something in return for the expenditure

In other words, anything that is solidly within the limits of our collective knowledge.

Current grant application selections are also too biased in favour of those good at writing them, rather than good at conducting the research

One should finally not forget that a considerable percentage of the work financed, turns up to be a waste of time and money, either as it is a mere repeat of previous research/activity or simply a failure

Hopefully nobody in their right mind really believes that a Government's every expenditure is completely justified?

By setting up a Grant Lottery, we can recognize that an uncertain potential for discovery is better than a certain waste.

Otherwise, we will keep missing the possibility to courageously innovate beyond the boundaries of the tried-and-tested.

Written by omnologos

2006/May/17 at 23:58:12

I’ll be cheering Mexico during the World Cup

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1. Italian football is too rotten to deserve participating, let alone win this year. I only wish they'd retire the squad now

2. I can't root for England. They'd be boasting about a World Cup win for the next 2,000 years

3. I can't root for Brazil. It's just too simple for them to win everything

4. I like Mexico

5. Mexico have a slim, remote non-zero chance of doing something good this year

6. The Mexican flag has got the right colours 😎


Written by omnologos

2006/May/16 at 01:30:46

Salivating News For Warmongering Idealists

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– or "Be afraid, be very afraid…"

Plenty of non-military applications for body armors (are we going to see invincible supercops patrol the land before 2020?)…but when this stuff will be ready to be deployed, we can only expect a lot more American and British military activity around the world

Virtual Soldier Program Receives 1 600 000 To Help Army Design Armor

Think about it…no more body bags to hide, no more war dead statistics to cringe about. We will be able to send armies anywhere in the world to blast any people into accepting democracy or whatever else will be appropriate

(no comment)

And just to show that, as usual, we can only "fight the last war":  Dr. Karim Abdel-Malek, professor of biomedical engineering and CCAD and VSR director, says that the body armor project is partly inspired by the experience of soldiers currently fighting in Iraq. The U.S. military has sensed the need for designing and implementing a more sophisticated armor system for the individual soldier, he saysAddendum: thanks to Rupert for pointing out another dark side of this story. With troops shielded by solid armour, attacks by "insurgents" on the civilian population will only increase.At this rate, the wars of the XXII century will see absolutely no casualty among the military

Written by omnologos

2006/May/16 at 00:17:44

Posted in Politics