Wednesday, December 15, 2010

WikiLeaks and Informatics

French version

WikiLeaks causes two diametrically opposed reactions: for some it is a criminal enterprise that puts democracy at risk. For others, there is nothing new in the documents that WikiLeaks publishes. But if these opinions are both negative, they clearly contradict each other: how could WikiLeaks put democracy at risk if it publishes nothing new? Those who express both critics are ridiculous.

Sarah Palin thinks Julian Assange is as dangerous as Osama bin Laden. Rush Limbaugh says that “back in the old days when men were men (…) this guy would die of lead poisoning from a bullet in the brain”. Joe Lieberman told reporters of The New York Times, who publish comments on the news published by WikiLeaks, are bad citizens. Newt Gingrich thinks Assange engaged in a military attack against the United States.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy says that WikiLeaks provides "the highest degree of irresponsibility". The Minister Eric Besson believes that it "endangers the diplomatic relations". The Prime Minister Francois Fillon accuses it of "theft and deal in stolen goods"...

In order to clarify this, I went on and spent a few hours reading the news that the U.S. embassy sent to the State Department.

Wikileaks holds 251,287 cables it publishes steadily since November 28, 2010. On December 20 1,788 cables were published.

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I found that this reading contradicts the two opinions mentioned above: these mails contain things that are both interesting and new, and their publication increases rather than damages the prestige of American diplomacy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Effects of Informatization on the Economic and Financial Crisis

Intervention at the Conference of the Applied Econometric Association, Ankara, October 4th, 2010

Click here for a pdf text of this intervention (149 KB, with graphics))

The contemporaneous technical system

To understand the effects of informatization, it is useful to refer to the theory of technical systems. A "technical system" is taking place when a small number of techniques come in synergy, their alloy releasing a previously unknown effectiveness. This was the case with industrialization, which was build from the eighteenth century on the synergy between mechanics and chemistry, to which were added electricity and oil at the end of the nineteenth century.

Computerization relies on the synergy between microelectronics and software, to whom network was added in 1975: this synergy allowed the emergence of a contemporary technological system (CTS). The computer, which was previously devoted mainly to calculation, became - with word processing, spreadsheet, grapher, messaging and file sharing, then the Internet and the Web - a universal instrument that brought the assistance of the automaton to personal work as well as communication between people.

The origin of industrialization was purely technical but it had anthropological and geopolitical consequences: it has expanded the system of wage labor and gave birth to the modern corporation, to working class and class war. It has led to rapid urbanization and rural exodus, to rapid technological change and the use of scientific research, it has prompted the deployment of the education system and health system, encouraged imperialism and colonialism, caused wars which used devastating weapons provided by the industry.

It is the quality, the power of their industry which ranked the nations : those who had not been industrialized were soon dominated or colonized by the industrialized nations.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pierre Mounier-Kuhn, "L'informatique en France", PUPS, 2010

Translated from a French version

This is the first volume of a monumental work that Pierre Mounier-Kuhn dedicates to the history of computing in France. It addresses research and University. A second volume will deal with the behavior of manufacturers, a third with the role of the state.

It will probably be necessary for Mounier-Kuhn to devote a fourth volume to the computerization of institutions, to what happened on the side of usages, their requirements and their relationships with scientists, suppliers and the state.

Like any historical research, this one was constrained by the availability of archives and hence it considers what happened before 1975. But it is at this time that the computerization of institutions and society begun: the notion of information system emerged in the early 70s, when the requirements of the semantics of data passed before those of the calculation which they condition under the principle garbage in, garbage out.

Mounier-Kuhn writes on the computerization of France, but he shows that our country, delayed by the circumstances of the German occupation, has not been a pioneer in this field. Computer technology had its source in the U.S. (and Britain), and the ideas that we French have had on compilers, operating systems, databases, networks etc. were only second hand, notwithstanding some individual exceptions.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The scale of Power

Translation from "L'échelle du pouvoir"

"Power", supreme goal, object of fantasy! To have power is to dominate the others, to dominate the world, to make a sense of his own life instead of undergoing a prescribed sense...

In its pure state, power is the exercise of this authority that legitimacy gives to the man in power and which bows before him the head of subordinates: they will accept his decisions and obey his orders.

Power encompasses however different levels corresponding to various functions: distinguishing the powers of appointment, management and orientation will help to diagnose the behavior of a person in power.

Appointment Power

One first form of power lies in the delegation of plots of legitimacy. The one who can appoint the officers, distribute roles and places, is like a lord to whom vassals swear loyalty.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A misleading indicator

Translation from "Un indicateur fallacieux"

We say "the debt of Greece" (or of "Spain", "France" etc.) while we talk about the debt of the Greek State (or of the Spanish, the French State). But the debt of a State and the debt of a country are two different things.

Moreover, we evaluate the level of indebtedness of a State by the ratio "gross debt / GDP", selected in the Maastricht agreements. This ratio is a chimera, a monstrous concept, because it compares a stock of an actor (the level of the gross debt of a State) to a flow of another actor (the annual output of a country, measured by its GDP). Yet we learned in elementary school that all proportion must include things of the same nature ("do not divide leeks by turnips," said our teachers). It is surprising to see so many economists discourse pedantically on such a misleading indicator.

The "gross debt" of an economic actor is less significant than its net debt, the gap between the value of its debts and the claims he has over others.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Edouard Tétreau, 20 000 milliards de dollars, Grasset, 2010

Translation from a French version.

This essay is a quick and pleasant reading: situations are evoked so vividly that you feel as if you were a participant.

After reading the introduction one expects a text in three parts: 1) everything that goes wrong in the U.S., 2) why they will bounce anyway, 3) how other countries will pay the kickback. But the development does not exactly obey this plan: part 2, "bounce", is reduced to an evocation of the transfusion of vitality and population coming from Mexico - and Tétreau does not answer an obvious question: if the Anglo-Saxon and protestant U.S. came into decay so that their vitality and demography depend on a Latino-Indian and catholic immigration, what will their identity become?

But he says that Americans don't care about identity: "What counts is not what you are, but what you do", repeated those he met and this "what you do" means immediate action: "Don't think, just do it," they told him.

This primacy given to action is a double edged sword. The art of engineering and practical no-nonsense are the strength of the U.S. but thoughtless action may deteriorate in activism and barren agitation - and one wonders if the U.S., becoming obese in every sense of the word, do not have lost the energy that their short history showed.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why economics is a science

(Translated from Pourquoi l'économie est une science)

"Economics is not a science," said the other day a friend of mine, a well known expert in computers and information systems. The image he has in mind is probably these that give these "economists" that one hears or sees in the French media, real sophists which are able to demonstrate everything and its opposite, and change their mind with always the same confidence. But this image is superficial.

"If you read Adam Smith, I answered, or Alfred Marshall, or Léon Walras, or John Hicks, or closer to us Ivar Ekeland and some others, you would see that there is an economic science. However I must confess that it took me time to understand that... "

Indeed the economics classes that I suffered at ENSAE in 1963-65 were so dogmatic that they could only convince students endowed with a docile memory - while my own memory, as restive as a skittish horse, agrees to hold only what I fully understand. Ekeland opened for me the door of economics with an article in La Recherche in 1976, while I stumbled on the limits of the interpretation of statistics.

When in 1983 I set up a mission of economic studies at CNET, engineers and researchers with whom I worked had the same prejudices that my friend. "Economics, they said, is a soft science". They believed that the economist is a dishonest lawyer whom the leaders instruct to "demonstrate" the profitability of projects they have already chosen.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Economists stunned

(Translated from "Les économistes atterrés")

Some French economists published recently a very interesting manifesto ("Economistes atterrés"). I signed it.

The crux of their argument is as follow: while the market for consumption and investment products converges towards their equilibrium prices due to the interplay of supply and demand, conversely prices of patrimonial assets (financial products, buildings, stocks of raw materials) diverge.

On this latter market, a price increase fuels the anticipation of a higher price in the future ("it goes up, so it will continue to rise"). The hope of a capital gain causes an increase in demand that still increases the price, until the anticipation turns ("it has risen too far, it's not going to continue"). Then the price collapses, crosses the equilibrium price without stopping and decreases until a new turn of anticipations ("it has dropped too much, this decline will not continue").

Hence the price for patrimonial assets undergoes large oscillations, while for consumption or investment products an increase of the price is moderated by a decline in demand (except perhaps for luxury goods).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nature and us

(Translated from "La nature et nous")

We can see Nature in at least two different perspectives:

- We think it is the physical world, whose order obeys immutable laws and that is external to human knowledge and action;
- Or we think Nature is the “state of things", that is to say everything that confronts our intentions and desires as an obstacle or a tool, and that is transformed by the expansion of our knowledge and by our action.

The first view considers only the physical nature whose complexity is a challenge: our knowledge, cutting a finite sphere in an unlimited space, can never be complete and absolute. Physical nature is as unknowable as God in Judaism.

The second point of view adds to the physical nature the sphere of our present knowledge, skills and artifacts, a sphere whose gradual extension transforms the obstacles and tools that nature presents us. The art of navigating transforms the ocean, a road transforms a wilderness, building a house transforms the ground, our waste pollutes soil, water and atmosphere.

This later point of view transforms the concept of Nature in including, in addition to physical nature, human nature and social nature. It is in this sense that Durkheim said “we must consider social facts as things".

Monday, April 5, 2010

François Jullien, The silent transformations, Seagull Books, 2011

Version en français

François Jullien presents here, more clearly than in his previous works, the confrontation between Chinese thought and European philosophy. By placing in front of the other, he highlights what each of them has neglected, what it does not want to see.

Is Philosophy an expression of our culture, of the way of thought that the Indo-European languages structure (subject - verb - complement, declensions and conjugations)? Or did she, starting from the Greek source, structure the way we think? It is indeed vain to try to distinguish cause and effect: the two phenomena, inter-weaved, enclose us in a familiar circle.

Our representation of the world proceeds by concepts and definitions with clear contours. It is suitable for mathematics, it encourages the construction of science, but it does not help us to think our aging, the landslides of our emotional life, all these slow changes whose term takes us by surprise.