360 hours smartphone free

Like most of my generation, I live in, and on, my iPhone 6. This is not hyperbole. The fantastic (and rather scary) Moment app tells me I spend 8% of my waking life accessing my iPhone. I pick it up over 110 times a day, every day. Worryingly, I use my iPhone more on the weekends—when I’m most with my kids—than I do during work.

I’m 38. Imagine I live to be 85, which, statistically, I can expect, and imagine I sleep 50% of that time. I have 23.5 years left awake before I die. That’s 1.88 years of my remaining life I’ll spend on an iPhone.

1.88 years of my allotted time on planet Earth. Fuck that.

I don’t spend 8% of my waking life reading books, or working out, or walking with my family. I’d like to think I spend my time somewhat productively, and I’m a reasonably happy person, but I’m pretty sure I can think of better uses for 1.88 years of my life than staring at a smart phone.

Smart phone use is this generation’s smoking, and I’m a heavy smoker. I’ve been aware of this for some time.

Moment tells me I use Twitter the most, followed by RSS feed app Reeder, podcast app Overcast, and then everything else.

The thing is, I love my iPhone. I love everything about it. But I don’t think spending 2-3 hours a day accessing it is smart.

The Punkt phone challenge came at exactly the right time. It’s summer and as an academic I’ve fewer responsibilities, apart from writing. I also had a nice mixture over the weekend of free time, and travel.

I started the challenge on Thursday the 5th of August in the evening. I sent a tweet announcing it, and the fun began.

Unboxing the phone was a lovely experience.  The packaging is sleek and well considered, the setup instructions are very clear, and the phone itself is both pleasing hold and obviously, very simple.

Once I was up and running, I sent a few text messages to friends to tell them not to message me on WhatsApp or any of the other iPhone centric services I use, and then got stuck in to doing not much at all with my phone.

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The urge to tweet about how I didn’t have a phone anymore was somewhat overpowering.

The idea of disconnection is appealing, and a little frightening. I write to be read for a living, and I am a digital native. But have I ever really been disconnected?

There is a German word to describe the nostalgia for things you never knew, and the word is Sehnsucht. Nostalgia or longing for a distant place you’ve never actually been to, but which may inexplicably, be home. There’s nothing quite like   Sehnsucht in English.

The Punkt MP01 is a Sehnsucht phone. It is nostalgia for disconnection in a small, modern, well designed plastic shell.

The lack of music, of podcasts, of feeds, of twitter, was a little alarming. I didn’t get iMessages, or pictures of my kids. Because I couldn’t import contacts onto my sim, I didn’t know who any of the calls I received were from. This unnerved those on the other end of the call more than me after a while. We’re used to being pre-recognised these days. The predictive text messaging is deliberately rudimentary. Replying to text messages became a total pain, so I just started calling people back, which I could tell annoyed some of them a little bit, sometimes. Voice calls can be an intrusion in 2016.

On Sunday, I travelled from Limerick to London to give some lectures. I’ve flown this route dozens of times. It is, essentially, a bus ride for me. Printing out boarding passes felt very 20th Century. The Punkt phone was to be my alarm clock and my phone. My iPhone stayed in Limerick. I brought my laptop for work, and an old kindle.

I managed to read a few books on my kindle, which is itself a form of ‘calm’ technology, the kind of tech that demands the smallest amount of attention, be as informative as possible, and create calm when it can. I read books by Theodore Zeldin, Warren Ellis, and James C. Scott. Those were, I think, a better use of my time than reading tweets. I still allowed myself to tweet a bit from the computer when it suited, but I wasn’t running to it every 5 minutes. From Thursday 5th to Thursday 11th, I sent 15 tweets, 4 of which were retweets of the news paper I write for. More importantly, the hours I normally spent on twitter were now minutes.

Travel was a good bit harder for me. I got lost on trains, on streets. In fact, I got lost pretty much everywhere I went in London. With no map apps to guide me, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who mostly had earbuds in, foreheads down, and when stopped for directions, didn’t know how to get to where I was going either. They used their phones to show me, but we had a laugh as well. There was a human connection, however brief, brought on by the phone.

I became much more aware of street signs, and of just listening. No headphones and no notifications beyond the odd text message meant I had a lot of time to just listen on planes and trains. The average train carriage is quite a loud space. Everyone listening to an individual sound source but me, shuttling through London’s underground and overground services. I looked out the window a lot.

When I got home from London, I played with my kids and didn’t think to check my phone once. I only realised this when it beeped at me. I charged the phone fully on Thursday the 5th. I’m writing this on Wednesday the 10th, and it is has just demanded a bit of power with a little vibration. My iPhone 6 barely made it past 3pm on any day.

I then travelled to Belfast for another set of lectures. Again, no iPhone. No problem this time as I was driving, but without the turn by turn navigation, the trip into Belfast city became a little fraught. I'm also really missed podcasts, which were a staple of my driving experience up to now.

I've now been using it for 15 days. The iPhone has stayed in its box and hasn't been used once in 15 days. Thats 12,650 times I haven't picked it up. I've charged the phone twice in those 15 days.

I am going to keep using the Punkt phone for another 15 days. 48 hours wasn’t enough to really see where this can take me. 360 hours gave me a sense that phones like this, which represent a sort of pulling back from the notification nirvana that is the iPhone, have a real place in the lives of digital natives like me.

The conditions I'm using the phone in are, as economists say, out of sample. I’m going to extend this experiment into a new academic term and new responsibilities at work, to see how much I really need the iPhone in my professional life.

Guest blog: Daniel Dennis on Eurozone QE

Below is an opinion piece by Daniel Dennis, a Leaving Certificate student at Glenstal Abbey school. It's also the first guest post I've ever allowed in 9 years of writing this blog. Have a read, this chap has a future in economics if he wants one.

***

Argument in favour of QE for the Eurozone

“The problem with QE, it works in practice, but it does not work in theory” said Ben Bernanke; the outgoing chairman of the Federal Reserve at the central bank of United States earlier this year.

In practice, the idea of QE (quantitative easing) is rather new. It was first tried by the Japanese central bank in 2001 and has seen positive results and has been employed by many central banks around the world in light of the Great Recession and again, has seen positive results.

It’s an unconventional method by which a central bank prints new money that has not existed before and uses it to buy bonds or other financial assets which increases their value, reduces their yield which increases their monetary base. The goal is to stimulate the economy where other methods have failed, such as lowering interest rates.

For the past few months, the inflation rate in the Eurozone has been dangerously low. In Ireland, inflation currently stands at 0.3%. This is far below the 2% target set by the ECB (European Central Bank.)

It is clear that the current policy of keeping interest rates low in the Eurozone is not working. There are cases where they are in negative figures, which has resulted in economic stagnation and there is no apparent sign that this will improve. In the majority of cases, deflation is not good news and it certainly will not be good news for the Eurozone. It reduces consumption, discourages investment and increases the debt burden, which is already high for many EU countries, particularly the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries.

Alternatively, the results of Quantitative Easing in other countries have been very promising. As of August 2014, Britain, which was very badly hit by the Great Recession, is the fastest growing economy in Europe. Its economy has returned to the same size that it was at pre-recession levels.

The longer we wait the more damage we do to the Eurozone. With the status quo, the Eurozone will descend back into recession and reverse the improvement that we have seen in the latter part of 2013 and 2014.

Of course, there are arguments against QE. Some say that the money that banks get will not actually benefit its citizens and it will be used instead to invest in developing nations. A report issued by the Bank of England stated that QE has in fact mainly benefited the wealthy thus leading to greater economic inequality. It also has the potential to harm pensions and savings.

However, the Eurozone needs it to discourage saving and encourage lending which won’t happen because of its low inflation rate. SMEs in particular are suffering because banks are refusing to give them credit, which is strangling growth.

The Eurozone has no other options but to consider putting QE into practice. It must act now to prevent the damaging effects of deflation.

Jan Tanner Poskas, RIP

In graduate school in New York, around 2005, an older lady approached me with a question. She asked me whether I thought I was good at maths. I said yes, I thought I was OK but there were much smarter people out there to talk to. The lady answered: Before I go find them, can I ask you some questions? I'm stuck on a few technik-y bits.

Jan Tanner Poskas didn't take no for an answer. She said she had no head for mathematics, statistics, or econometrics, but her questions, when I brought her through some of the derivations of the BLUE for example, showed that she really did get the point of the estimation process, it was the steps in between that got her muddled.

I asked Jan questions, and got her to work backwards from her correct intuitive endpoint to the start, and she got it right away. Jan taught me you can teach people by talking at them, or by asking them questions and bouncing off their answers. I use that trick every time I teach.

Jan saw the end of things much too quickly it seemed. Jan taught me that intuition can be as important in economics as deduction from axioms and induction from data.

Keynes made the point technicians miss: to be a good economist you need to have the maths, yes, and you need to have the data crunching skills, yes, but you also need to have some 'sense' of what is going on, and what went before, if you are going to try to understand the economy. History is very useful, but so is just staring and using your common sense. One of the best examples of Keynes' views are in his his eulogy of Alfred Marshall (.pdf):

But the amalgam of logic and intuition and the wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise, which is required for economic interpretation in its highest form, is, quite truly, overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision.

Jan had the power to imagine, and I loved her for it. She got me to see beyond deriving stuff for the sake of deriving.

By the way: It wasn't that Jan had no head for figures. A prominent financier for decades, Jan's company made lots of money. But she wasn't interested in that, so after meeting her husband, the eminent painter Peter Poskas, Jan retired from finance and began thinking about ethics. She taught ethics for many years and began her PhD in economics at the New School in the 2000s. She kept asking questions.

"What's the point of economics Stephen? Why should we study this stuff? What are the maths for? What's the right thing to do?"

Jan's questions were always the same: deep, to the point, and tinged with a strong social conscience.

When I was organising my wedding in 2006, I invited Jan. She couldn't come, but she asked could she make the flowers for the wedding and have them sent up? I said of course. The flowers were beautiful, and made the wedding really special. For a present, she and Peter took my wife and I to the Yale Club for lunch, where we learned the true meaning of the word 'pretension', and got a good story out of the experience to boot. In a thank you note, Jan gave me a present that basically changed my life. I'll always be grateful to her for it.

We continued to correspond through her illness. She sent me a Christmas postcard of her, Peter, and her grandchildren this year. I had been meaning to respond, but it slipped my mind. Now I won't get the chance.

Rest in Peace, Jan.

Keynes v Taleb

"[My] theory is moderately conservative…. If the State is able to determine the aggregate amount of resources devoted to augmenting the instruments [i.e., the level of public plus private investment,] and the basic rate of reward to those who own them [i.e., the interest rate], it will have accomplished all that is necessary… then there is no objection to be raised against the classical [laissez-faire economic] analysis…. [T]e traditional advantages of individualism will still hold good… advantages of efficiency… decentralisation and of the play of self-interest… individual responsibility… greatly widens the field for the exercise of personal choice. It is also the best safeguard of the variety of life… variety preserves the traditions which embody the most secure and successful choices of former generations… being the handmaid of experiment as well as of tradition and of fancy, it is the most powerful instrument to better the future. Whilst… government,,, adjusting to one another the propensity to consume and the inducement to invest would seem to a nineteenth-century publicist or to a contemporary American financier to be a terrific encroachment on individualism. I defend it… as the condition of the successful functioning of individual initiative. For if effective demand is deficient, not only is the public scandal of wasted resources intolerable, but the individual enterpriser who seeks to bring these resources into action is operating with the odds loaded against him. The game of hazard which he plays is furnished with many zeros, so that the players as a whole will lose if they have the energy and hope to deal all the cards."

John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24

Love this quote, must find a home for it. (via Delong)

We’re still on the hook despite €3.1bn debt delay plan

Writing in the Irish Independent on March 13, I argued we should pay the debt our democratically elected leaders signed us up for, but not now, when the economy is struggling to regain upward momentum.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced on Wednesday that negotiations were under way to postpone the €3.1bn payment due at the end of March

Instead, it was widely concluded, a government bond would be written to meet the payment, effectively pushing the repayment of the €3.1 bn out to 2025, when the shell that holds all of Anglo's debt is supposed to be wound down.

You'd think I'd be reaching for the Babycham, but no. I was left perplexed by the whole thing.

The key to understanding all this messing about with bonds and notes and made-up money is to understand the funding problems of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), the shell that holds all of Anglo and Irish Nationwide's assets and liabilities.

The promissory notes are on the asset side. On the liability side is around €42bn worth of emergency lending assistance -- money that was created by the Irish Central Bank to help fund Anglo when no one else would. When the promissory note gets paid off, the emergency lending assistance amount is reduced at the same time.

To understand the drama in the situation, you must see that the IBRC can't exchange the emergency lending assistance with the ECB for cash to run its day-to-day activities.

That's a liability for it.

Nor can it exchange its so-called assets, the promissory notes, in the same fashion. Substituting a government bond for the €3.1bn payment makes sense for IBRC, because it can hand that bond to the ECB in exchange for cash. Funding problem solved, yes?

Well no. That's just the principal. We need to think about the interest rate charged on the promissory note -- around 8.25pc. And the interest rate charged on the bond which will need to be paid out each year on the 13-year bond until 2025, at which time the €3.1bn in principal will have to be paid back too.

Right now IBRC gets most of its funding from the interest rates on the promissory notes, one of its main assets. The bond will need to replace this funding, and will need to do so in a way that makes sure this bank -- which will never lend again -- stays solvent, meaning the value of its assets is greater than the value of its liabilities. No mean feat.

What's stressing me out about this announcement is its relative lack of subtlety. For months we've been hearing about technical discussions between the ECB, the IMF, and the European Commission. For months we've heard whispers about moving the tracker mortgages from our pillar banks to the IBRC to replace the promissory notes, to simultaneously (and elegantly) heal the balance sheets of our private banks and solve the promissory note problem.

We've heard about complex negotiations around debt writedowns and table thumping from the top chaps and chapettes in the Department of Finance.

Yet what we get is a can-kicking, extend-and-pretend type exercise, and only for one year. What happens next year? Do we write a 12-year bond for that payment, and an 11-year bond for the one after that? Or will a more permanent solution be sorted by then?

Ultimately the taxpayer is on the hook for all of the losses of these dead banks. The question is how we pay these debts to get any chance of growth in the economy. We still don't have a full picture of the answer.

The financial wizards have had months to sort out the promissory note issue in a nuanced, complex, and comprehensive manner, and they haven't. This deal, if it comes off, is a rough, hacked-together and reactive one. Which makes me believe that either our masters in the troika aren't nearly as smart as I think they are -- or they have something else in mind as a more permanent, nuanced, and elegant solution.

 Published in the Irish Independent

RTE's Sean Whelan is giving a talk at UL on Wednesday, 28th March at 4pm in the Schuman Building (S2-05), worth attending if you're about.