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In Paris

June 6, 2016

Today I’m giving a talk a USI in Paris. It’s unbelievably swank, the very first time I’ve been part of something that is, for example, taking place in the Carrousel du Louvre. I’m also staying at a ridiculous hotel with this view from my balcony:


That building on the left is the Louvre.

And yes, it’s bizarre to be in such a nice place so I can go complain about how poor people are being surveilled and mistreated. I accept all cries of “hypocrite!” that you might want to throw at me, but know that at least I’m a self-aware hypocrite.

And with that, I wanted to share a few things with you today.

First, did you know there were reparations to slave owners in Britain? Turns out, soon after slavery was abolished in 1836, slave owners in Britain got very seriously compensated, to the tune of 17 billion pounds ($24 billion) in today’s money, which was 3.5% of the government’s income that year.

Seems to me this should change our perspective on reparations. I learned this just now from the BBC, which is what I watch on TV when I’m in Paris (see also this). There’s a new project to map out the slaves and slaveowners that received money all over the world.

Second, thanks to Abe Kohen I found out that Wisconsin’s Supreme Court is considering whether recidivism risk scores deny criminal defendants due process and are discriminatory, given that they rely on proprietary source code. Very interested to see how this turns out.

And, yet again, they are relying on the fact that a defendant’s score is “one of many factors a court can consider at sentencing.” I’m not sure this makes any sense. If there’s a shit score, but it’s only one of many factors that are used in a process that’s supposed to be fair, doesn’t that mean the overall process isn’t fair?

Finally, I wanted everyone who’s interested in what it feels like to be a 40-something old lady rebel to read this essay. An excerpt:

It’s partially because I am “old” that I’ve stopped caring about what’s socially acceptable for me to do or wear. I got my first tattoo at 40. This year, I had my hair dyed teal. And you know what? It looks fantastic. My favorite pair of shoes are my Doc Martin boots, and I dare any child on the internet who’s probably younger than some of the underwear I own to try to tell me I can no longer wear them.

I mean, my hair is blue, not teal, but yes! Funny and true.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 6, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Saw you in NYC on Friday at World Science Festival making the point about racist algorithms. Right on!

    Phoebe Holmes’s essay about under-30s bullying their elders resonated with this male young at heart sixty-something activist. In my case, I was so appreciative of the kids in Occupy (Albany in my case) standing up to the system that I let them make me “step back” too much when I had something to contribute.

    As I knew from the New Left, horizontalism or as it was called then “no leaders” is a cloak enabling the actual leaders to escape accountability, a point made by Elinor Langer in her classic essay Notes for Next Time http://ebookinga.com/doc/elinor-langer-notes-for-next-time. We can empower the voiceless to speak up, but we can’t prefigure away the fact that some people are more self confident, decisive, assertive and charismatic than most, and the less decisive majority will usually pick someone to follow. The best we can do is teach people to participate, and hold leaders accountable.

    BBC among others reported that the historic flooding this week forced the Louvre to hastily move large numbers of masterpieces from below ground storage to higher ground. How did that go?


    • June 6, 2016 at 2:02 am

      Thanks for the comment! I will report back if I see the Mona Lisa floating in the Seine.


  2. June 6, 2016 at 3:24 am

    I wanted to say hello, but my next panel (CRISPR DNA Splicing) was uptown, and I was rather strung out from the fact that my bus from Albany had spent close to an hour queuing to get into the Lincoln Tunnel. Optimizing that traffic flow to favor buses would be a good data science project.

    I was closed out of the LIGO panels, but last night I figured out how it is possible to measure gravity wave amplitudes less than the diameter of a nucleus ~10^-15 m using visible light lasers with wavelengths ~5×10^-6 m.
    The beams are 4 km long, or ~10^9 wavelengths, and the beams are folded, so all the orders of magnitude are recovered and the interferometer does its job. Duh!


  3. Leila
    June 6, 2016 at 4:38 am



  4. Mike
    June 6, 2016 at 6:49 am


    I’m surprised by your surprise about the UK’s payments to slave owners at the time of abolition. It’s never exactly been a secret; in fact, in my personal experience, it’s always been a part of the story. I’ve not studied this in any detail – so I’ll be happy if anyone can correct me – but I’ve always understood that this was a simple matter of politics: abolition required majorities in both houses of parliament and the abolitionists were pragmatic enough (and thought it was important to avoid further delay) that they were prepared to buy off their opponents, despite the large amount of money that had to be borrowed to do so.

    I’m not sure why you think this should change our perspective on reparations: I’m pretty sure that you are NOT saying that we should just be grateful to the Victorian taxpayers for taking on this financial burden to get rid of slavery. Basically, there was a ethically questionable redistribution of wealth within the British Empire, the existence of which I do not think relevant to any claims made today.

    The figures you quote don’t seem to be correct. The £20 million paid may have been about 4% of GDP but it was a lot more than your “3.5% of the government’s income”; I’ve seen quotes of 40% of government annual expenditure. I’ve no idea where your “£17 billion in today’s money” comes from: I guess it depends on how you convert values but, if one took a simple minded approach and used consumer price inflation since 1833 the current value would be about £2 billion. Mind you, Wikipedia gives us £69.93 billion in 2013 pounds so the range of values on offer seems to be rather large.


  5. June 6, 2016 at 7:10 am

    you promise this isn’t your first step in going over to the dark side (no matter how much wine and chocolate they feed you)!?


  6. Michael L.
    June 6, 2016 at 10:24 am

    I had heard about the compensation to British slave owners. When we were in graduate school, an economist friend and I used to talk about whether Britain’s compensation approach to ending slavery or what eventually became ours, The Civil War, was the more “efficient” one. We, of course, realized that there were social justice reasons for ending that system too. But as a budding economist, in his case, and budding quantitative sociologist, in mine, we just happened to be focused on efficiency that day.


  7. lindapbrown2013
    June 6, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    And Haitians, after they won their revolution, had to pay reparations to France, until deep into the 20th century, I believe. After being enslaved they had to buy themselves back.


    • June 7, 2016 at 3:00 am

      Yes, and you know they had to pay in *lumber*, which is a large reason their topsoil is so eroded now.


  8. June 7, 2016 at 11:12 am

    (OT, I guess) Are you at the Westin? Great hotel and great location.


  9. Gerard Hurley
    June 13, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    Re compensation to slaveholders:

    The tax revenue of the United Kingdom in 1834 was about £50 million, so the capital value of the £20 million compensation was indeed 40% of annual revenue. However it looks as though the plan was to settle the compensation by issuing perpetual bonds (a sort of annuity) at a coupon of 3.5%, so the annual cost to the taxpayer would be £700,000 in perpetuity.

    A labourer’s annual household income in 1834 was about £40, so you’d need to multiply by at least 250 to get a current equivalent, so £5 billion or more. But 40% of the UK’s tax revenue in 2016 would be more like £280 billion. (The Iraq and Afghan wars together cost about £30 billion over 15 years.)

    A few figures on Wikipedia indicate that the compensation per slave was £10-£20, which seems low compared to the annual cost of an English labourer. But presumably the bottom would have fallen out of the West Indian slave market over the years that emancipation was being discussed, so by 1834 it may have ended up as a cheap trade for the UK government.


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