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Just finished reading Thomas Piketty's now-famous book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It's a big book, takes a while, but it's thoroughly worth it. It's admirably data-driven, yet clear and readable.

One thing it gives you is a lot of tips about whether the future will be the same as the past. Will inflation, growth, inequality be similar in the next 50 years as in the past 50 years? There are some perennial factors, and some things that are actually blips (caused e.g. by the World Wars) when considered on a timescale of centuries - and many of these are not quite as I had expected. Plenty of interesting titbits about, for example, how the amount of wealth we inherit is or isn't changing as our average lifespan gets longer, and how much "gift-giving" has grown in recent years as an "alternative" to inheritance.

And the readability is enhanced with details from history and literature, such as the way authors such as Jane Austen reflect the financial certainties of their time in their prose.

(It's worth mentioning that the Financial Times briefly smudged the book's reputation by alleging some of the data was wrong. (See here for example.) However, as The Economist noted, "the analysis does not seem to support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book's argument is wrong." The FT later awarded Piketty's book their business book of the year, perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing.)

I agree with the LRB's review of the book that "nothing about the book is more impressive than the range and richness of its statistical information. [The book] both insists on the importance of data and, at least where modern societies are concerned, highlights the uncertainties involved in its collection." (Note: the LRB also takes issue with some of Piketty's interpretations - interesting review.)

The LRB review also points out that Piketty's proposed mechanism for fixing some of the problems of modern markets and global captialism - namely, a global progressive tax on capital - may be a nice theory to consider but it's so unrealistic as to be unhelpful. Piketty claims (p515) that even though it's utopian, it's worth considering, maybe even working towards. But to me it seems obviously to neglect so many extremely powerful problems. Of course the richest people have the most political power, and will fight to prevent such taxes being adopted (or if they are adopted, to build a new tax haven state on an oil-rig somewhere). Maybe this is just a practical problem, to be solved by politics. But the tax would require all forms of wealth, owned by every person on and off the planet, to be enumerated. If not, the rich and their financial engineers would transfer their assets into un-enumerated assets. This reminds me of the "information asymmetry" critique of neo-classical economics: many market theories assume that all market participants have perfect information, and this unrealistic assumption is required to prove those markets' effectiveness. Similarly, the effectiveness of the global capital tax in balancing out inequality rests really quite heavily on the idea of some tax agencies somewhere having essentially perfect knowledge. Unfortunately (and as Piketty notes) modern financial engineering means that many taxes, even progressive taxes, become a bit regressive when everyone is subject to them except for the super-rich.

Piketty also says (p519) that the main benefit of the wealth tax (charged at low annual rates, nothing too scary) is "more in the nature of a compulsory reporting law than a true tax" - in a sense, he's less interested in taxing wealth than encouraging transparency in wealth ownership. This again is a bit utopian, since of course people will be motivated to avoid some things being reported, but not so problematic, since the benefits of transparency don't require 100% transparency. And it chimes well with Piketty's insistence that it's not financial rules that can fix the world, but publicly-available information and democratic debate combined with the rule of law. Piketty points out (p570) that most businesses don't publish enough financial details for us to work out how the wealth is divided between profits and wages. If they were required to, that would empower workers. As well as economists ;)

economics · Permalink / Comment

This is either a spooky coincidence, or a really neat connection I hadn't known:

For decades, Noam Chomsky and colleagues have famously been developing and advocating a "minimalist" idea about the machinery our brain uses to process language. There's a nice statement of it here in this 2014 paper. They propose that not much machinery is needed, and one of the key components is a "merge" operation that the brain uses in composing and decomposing grammatical structures. (Figure 1 shows it in action.)

Then yesterday I was reading this introduction to embeddings in deep neural networks and NLP, and I read the following:

"Models like [...] are powerful, but they have an unfortunate limitation: they can only have a fixed number of inputs. We can overcome this by adding an association module, A, which will take two word or phrase representations and merge them.

(From Bottou (2011))

"By merging sequences of words, A takes us from representing words to representing phrases or even representing whole sentences! And because we can merge together different numbers of words, we don’t have to have a fixed number of inputs."

This is a description of something called a "recursive neural network" (NOT a "recurrent neural network"). But look: the module "A" seems to do what the minimalists' "merge" operation does. The blogger quoted above even called it a "merge" operation...

As far as I can tell, the inventors of recursive neural networks were motivated by technical considerations - e.g. how to handle sentences of varying lengths - and not by the minimalist linguists. But it looks a little bit like they've created an artificial neural network embodiment of the minimalist programme! I'm not an NLP person, nor a linguist, however: surely I'm not the first to notice this connection? It would be a really neat convergence if it was indeed unconscious. Does this mean we can now test some Chomskian ideas (such as their explanation of word displacement) by implementing them in software?

science · Permalink / Comment

It's always good to have recipes for those packs of cooked beetroot. So let's have a nice simple soup. Serves 4 to 5 people, takes about half an hour:

On a medium heat, heat up a blob of marge in a deep saucepan with a lid. Roughly slice the onion and add it. Then add the cumin seed and stir. Slice the garlic and add that. Add salt and pepper. Let that all fry gently to soften, for about 5 minutes.

Roughly chop the tomatoes and pile them on top. Boil the kettle and add enough hot water so that it only-just-about covers the things in the pan (maybe 1/2 a cup). Stir, then put the pan lid on, turn the heat down to low, and let it bubble gently for 15 minutes.

Cut the beetroot roughly into chunks, add it to the pan and stir. Take the pan off the heat. Let everything cool for a minute, then carefully ladle it all into a big blender. (I say carefully because you still want to be careful about beetroot stains!) Whizz it all up, briefly so that there are no pieces left but it's still kinda thick. Return it to the pan.

Warm it up again, adding the milk at the end - not too much, just enough to slacken it and give it a touch of creaminess.

Serve with bread and butter.

recipes · Permalink / Comment

At our local International Supermarket they do some great turkish delight. However, the batch I bought recently tasted funny - I think they must have stored the turkish delight alongside a big mound of parsley, because it had obviously absorbed some flavours which didn't really suit it!

So what can you do if your turkish delight has absorbed some flavours? Make it absorb some more!

So I experimented with tea-smoking the turkish delight. I was nervous that something weird would happen in the wok (I've never tried warming up turkish delight before...) but it turned out fine and the smoky flavour works well.

Actually I'd like them a bit more smoky than they are, so you might want to increase some of the proportions here:

Get a wok (or similar) and put a layer of tinfoil in.

Rip open the teabags and pour their contents onto the foil. Then add roughly equal quantities of rice and sugar. Mix it up a bit with your fingers. Put the wok on a medium heat. It'll take a few minutes until it starts smoking.

Meanwhile, you'll need something into the wok which will hold the turkish delight well away from the heat, but will allow the smoke to circulate. Maybe some sort of steaming pan. I used a thing for stopping oil from spitting at you.

Don't put the "thing" into the wok yet, keep it to one side. On top of the thing, put some tinfoil and put the pieces of turkish delight onto that. Space them out, and make sure the foil won't stop smoke from circulating.

Turkish delight, ready to get smoked

When the tea has started smoking, put the thing-and-foil-and-delight into it, and put a tight lid on top. (You could use foil, if you don't have a good lid.)

Turn the heat down a bit and let the thing smoke gently for about 15 minutes. Don't peek inside! You don't want the smoke to escape! After 15 minutes, turn off the heat and just leave the pan there for a couple of hours to let the process continue.

When it's all finally done, open the pan - in a well-ventilated area. Take the delight out, and sprinkle with a bit more icing sugar to serve.

recipes · Permalink / Comment

In the UK we have these "shared ownership" schemes. They're provided by Housing Associations and they're meant to make homebuying more affordable for people who can't get on the housing ladder. The thing is, I do have some savings so I could afford to get a flat the "normal" way, but I saw this shared-ownership flat and it was so ideal - very close to work, etc etc. No way I could have afforded that if I was buying it outright.

So I went for it. But after spending thousands of pounds, two months and many sleepless nights, I had to conclude it wasn't as affordable as it had looked - and after some gnashing of teeth I had to pull out, go back to square one, and start looking all over again. I don't want other people to have to do that. So here's my advice:

Shared ownership is more complex than normal homebuying, in many ways. First because you have to work out your mortgage costs for the share that you'll be buying, AND your rent costs for the bit that you'll not be buying, plus the other costs (service charges etc) - and how all those things will change over time. I wish the people selling me their shared-ownership flat had put all the costs up-front, or they wouldn't have had the cost and hassle of a sale falling through.

Here are some of the reasons shared ownership was not for me:

I've nothing against Housing Associations and I think they're providing a useful service. They provide some of the role that council house-building programmes used to, and especially now that the coalition government has revved up right-to-buy again, there's a shortage of social housing, so at least these "affordable" housing options are there for people who can't get a place on a mortgage. But shared ownership can easily look like a better deal than it really is.

money · Permalink / Comment

I have a fully-funded PhD position available to study machine learning and bird sounds with me!

For full details please see the PhD advertisement on jobs.ac.uk. Application deadline Monday 12th January 2015.

Please do email me if you're interested or if you have any questions.

– and is there anyone you know who might be interested? Send them the link!

science · Permalink / Comment

Newham Council has handled the current Carpenters Estate protest shockingly badly. Issuing a press release describing the protesting mothers as "agitators and hangers-on" is just idiotically bad handling.

BUT they have also described Carpenters Estate as not "viable", and many commentators (such as Zoe Williams, Russell Brand) have lampooned them for it. After all, they can see the protesting mothers occupying a perfectly decent-looking little home. How can it be not "viable"?

Are they judging viability compared against the market rate for selling off the land? That's what Zoe Williams says, and that's what I assumed too from some conversations. But that's not it at all.

Newham's current problem with the Carpenters Estate is basically caused by the two different types of housing stock on the estate:

So "not viable" means they can't find any way to refurbish those tower blocks to basic living standards - especially not in the face of the Tory cuts to council budgets - and that affects the whole estate as well as just the tower blocks. This appears to be the fundamental reason they're "decanting" people, in order to demolish and redevelop the whole place. (Discussed eg in minutes from 2012.) It's also the reason they have a big PR problem right now, because those two-storey houses appear "viable" and perfectly decent homes, yet they do indeed have a reason to get everyone out of them!

After the UCL plan for Carpenters Estate fell through it's understandable that they're still casting around for development plans, and we might charitably assume the development plans would be required to include plenty of social housing and affordable housing. You can see from the council minutes that they do take this stuff seriously when they approve/reject plans.

(Could the council simply build a whole new estate there, develop a plan itself, without casting around for partners? Well yes, it's what councils used to do before the 1980s. It's not their habit these days, and there may be financial constraints that make it implausible, but in principle I guess it must be an option. Either way, that doesn't really affect the question of viability, which is about the current un-demolished estate.)

But the lack of a plan has meant that there's no obvious "story" of what's supposed to be happening with the estate, which just leaves space for people to draw their own conclusions. I don't think anyone's deliberately misrepresenting what the council means when they talk about viability. I think the council failed badly in some of its early communication, and that led to misunderstandings that fed too easily into a narrative of bureaucratic excuses.

politics · Permalink / Comment

"A group of local mothers are squatting next to London’s Olympic Park to tell the government we need social housing, not social cleansing" as featured in the Guardian and on Russell Brand's Youtube channel. The estate is Carpenters Estate, Stratford.

"Carpenters Estate," I thought to myself, "that rings a bell..."

It turns out Carpenters Estate is the one that UCL had proposed in 2011 to redevelop into a new university campus. The Greater Carpenters Neighbourhood "has been earmarked for redevelopment since 2010". "All proposals will take into account existing commitments made by the Council to those people affected by the re-housing programme." However, locals raised concerns, as did UCL's own Bartlett School (architecture/planning school) students and staff. (There's a full report here written by Bartlett students.) In mid-2013 negotiations broke down between Newham and UCL and the idea was ditched.

It seems that the council, the locals and others have been stuck in disagreement about the future of the estate for a while. At first the council promised to re-house people without breaking up the community too much, then it realised it didn't know how to do that, and eventually it came to the point where it's just gradually "decanting" people from the area and hoping that other things such as "affordable housing" (a shadow of a substitute for social housing) will mop things up. I can see how they got here and I can see how they can't find a good resolution of all this. But the Focus E15 mothers campaign makes a really good point, that irrespective of the high land prices (which probably mean Newham Council get offered some tempting offers), the one thing East London needs is social housing to prevent low-income groups and long-time locals from being forced out of London by gentrification.

The gentrification was already well underway before the London Olympic bid was won, but that had also added extremely predictable extra heat to the housing market around there. One part of the Olympic plan included plenty of "affordable housing" on the site afterwards - in August 2012, housing charity Shelter said it was good that "almost half" of the new homes built in the Athlete's Village would be "affordable housing". Oh but then they calculated that it wouldn't be that affordable after all, since the rules had been relaxed so the prices could go as high as 80% of market rate. (80% of bonkers is still crazy.)

Oh and it wasn't "almost half" (even though in the Olympic Bid they had said it would be 50% of 9,000 homes), by this point the target had been scaled back officially to about 40%. In November 2012 Boris Johnson insisted "that more than a third of the 7,000 new homes in the Olympic Park would be affordable". The Mayor said: 'There’s no point in doing this unless you can accommodate all income groups.'"

Oh but then in January 2014 Boris Johnson announced that they were changing their mind, and instead of 40% affordable housing, it's now going to be 30%. "Fewer homes will be built overall, and a smaller than promised percentage of those would be affordable." ("The dream of affordable housing is fading," said Nicky Gavron.) The new target contravenes the House of Lords Select Committee on Olympic Legacy report 2013-14 which said "It is important that a fair proportion, at least [...] 35%, of this housing is affordable for, and accessible to, local residents". Boris Johnson said it was a "price well worth paying" as a trade off for more economic activity. Strange assertion to make, since East London has bucketloads of economic activity and a crisis in social and affordable housing!

P.S. and guess why they decided not to build as many homes as they had planned? It's to make room for a cultural centre codenamed Olympicopolis. (Compare against this 2010 map of planned housing in the park.) Plans for this are led by... UCL! Hello again UCL, welcome back into the story. I love UCL as much as anyone - I worked there for years - but we need to fix the housing crisis a billion times more than we need to solve UCL's real-estate issues.

politics · 3 comments

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