Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Apparently the Telly Savalas joke was lost on my younger readers

So I'll just note that Ricky Martin coming out as gay, is rather like Steven Byers admitting that he can't really influence policy decisions.


1 comments this item posted by the management 3/31/2010 01:07:00 PM
The suffering, oh the suffering, of Rod Liddle

Apparently Rod Liddle has been censured by the PCC for saying something stupid about black people. He is suitably enraged at this infringement on his free speech.

Let us consider what has happened to him. No, he has not been imprisoned. No, he has not been fined. No, he has not been barred from working in the industry. No, he has not lost his job. No, the Spectator has not taken down the item in question.

What has happened to this man (and, note, could happen to any one of us - surely a prospect to chill the marrow) is that a committee of his peers have published a written report saying that his claims were offensive and unsubstantiated, and asked the Spectator to post this report on their website. Of course "asked" is a misnomer here - if the Spectator did not comply with the PCC's request, then they would be threatened with having their name removed from the list of organisations that have signed up to the Code of Practice.

Mark Ames once claimed that he kept a figurine of Martha Nussbaum pinned between two crosses, because (in being denied tenure at Harvard and having to become a professor at the University of Chicago), he figured she had suffered twice as much as Jesus. I therefore, as a tribute to the bravery of Rod Liddle (and I repeat, any one of us could also be criticised by our peers in a similar manner), link to this copy of Salvador Dali's four-dimensional hypercube crucifixion picture, because I think Liddle has perhaps suffered twice as awfully as that.

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5 comments this item posted by the management 3/31/2010 09:58:00 AM

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Crisis in the Middle East!

Melanie Phillips brings me the news:

So it’s now not just a crisis between the Obama administration and Israel. By a remarkable coincidence, the UK government has now upped the ante too against its sole 'friend' and 'ally' in the Middle East

Oh my God this is awful! Israel is now our only ally in the Middle East! Why hasn't there been more reporting on the incredibly serious diplomatic developments that have presumably taken place in the last couple of days? We've chucked Turkey out of NATO! We've broken our alliance with Saudi Arabia! What about Iraq - I thought we still had a few troops there at the request of the government? Dubai aren't our friends any more - what will the footballers do?

In fact I am pretty sure that both the UK and USA have quite a few friends and allies in the Middle East. The country which has Israel as its sole ally in the region is called Israel. And even they are usually on friendly terms with Turkey.
8 comments this item posted by the management 3/25/2010 03:57:00 AM
Further ruminations on "if something's not worth doing, it's not worth doing well"

This always degenerates into a flamewar when I write it on CT[1], but I mean really, look at it. It's a random, but certainly not peripheral or nutpicked, example of an article in modern metaphysics & epistemology, on the subject of statements of the form:


Sue: "Bill could be in Boston"
Ted: "Actually, I just saw him board a flight to Houston"


Sue: "Oh. Then I was wrong".

Apparently it is very difficult to fit this sort of thing into a consistent logical framework. It's not a bad article, or even an uninteresting one - it's quite fascinating if you like logic puzzles and I do. But I mean really. "Oh, maybe I'm wrong then" - who doesn't understand that?

People who tackle problems like whether phrases like "Oh, maybe I'm wrong" imply that there are sentences whose truth conditions are indexical to a context of assessment, are, as a fact of sociology, some of the most prestigious and respected members of the profession and generally considered to be the most intelligent. Problems like this are considered to be the most important and difficult in philosophy.

People who think about questions like "Is war bad?", "Does life begin at conception?" or "Is it immoral to make workers redundant?", are much further down the food chain and often working in departments that don't even have "philosophy" in the title. Funny old world.

[1] Strangely, there is always an appreciative audience for material suggesting that economics has gone down a blind alley of pointless formalism, but when the same suggestion is made to the philosophers about their own subject, my gosh they don't like it. I think the original reference is in the Talmud, Bava Kama Chapter 5, "Rules Concerning a Goring Ox".

[2] "High theorists" in any subject are, of course, always given to arguing that their abstract methodological discussions are vital in forming the tools which can be used to work on practical problems. There are two responses to this, which are in the first, "No they aren't"[3], and in the second that high theorists certainly don't act or behave like support staff providing a secondary function to people doing the real work.

[3] "No", is imperfect here - the correct response, as the economist said to the philosopher, is a sweep underneath the chin with the fingertips.
45 comments this item posted by the management 3/25/2010 02:23:00 AM
Thursday music link

My boy has inherited my insomnia. In order to cheer him up, I essayed the following spurious calculation: If it takes him three hours longer than the average kid to get to sleep, and he spends those three hours reading (both basically true), then he gains roughly two schooldays every week. So by the age of eighteen, he will have had slightly more than five years' more education than his classmates.

Electric Guitar Phase. If you don't like that one you can keep it real and keep it acoustic. If you do like it, you can learn the dance.

I am also getting on the "Theme Tune for your blog" bandwagon. The theme toon of D^2D is the Styrenes rock version of In C.
11 comments this item posted by the management 3/25/2010 12:57:00 AM

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thought for the day

Stephen Byers getting caught peddling influence is like Telly Savalas getting caught peddling hair.
3 comments this item posted by the management 3/23/2010 05:33:00 AM

Friday, March 19, 2010

The rain falleth equally on rich and poor, but then there are these things called irrigation canals

Agronomics meets Economics, downtown, via Brad DeLong. Now there are all sorts of things that went on in Zimbabwean farming, and tragedy-of-the-commons issues played their part, I'm sure (although access to capital and credit in order to invest in irrigation and fertilizer almost certainly more so). I don't have much in the way of real opinions on the way forward for land policy in Zimbabwe - I wrote quite a bit on land policy during Project Africa and ended up concluding that it was a nightmare, and the best you could hope for was to try to achieve a distribution that didn't carry the seeds of a civil war.

But really, if someone's at the level of thinking that rainfall and soil quality were equal on neighbouring farms in Zimbabwe, then that's really quite naive about water politics. When you have a green farm next to a brown farm in a dry country, it's very unlikely that the difference simply reflects industry, investment and talent, and equally unlikely that the brown farm could be just as green if they only tried. In fact, it looks like this specifically isn't a tragedy of the commons - water rights were redistributed along with the land, clearly to the detriment of the commercial farms. Again, that probably wasn't the right thing to do, but this isn't a Just So Story about how private farmers "took care" of the land.

(note: the photos are as far as I can tell from 2005 and 2006, not 2000 and 2006. In other words, they don't necessarily span land reform. The green farm on the right also looks to me to be potentially the right colour to have been a sugar cane plantation, which are notorious water hogs.)

Update: Thanks very much to an anonymous commenter - there is something up with those google earth pictures, which has caused MR to take the pictures down. Careful out there now.
2 comments this item posted by the management 3/19/2010 09:19:00 AM

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thursday music link

I still maintain that if the "adrenaline rush" and the "natural endorphin high" were any good, you would be able to buy adrenaline and endorphins in nightclubs.

Sheep on Drugs - 'Motorbike'

Another one that I remember as being much heavier than it actually apparently was - is this memory or poor modern sound reproduction. "Well Jesus Christ, It's Saturday Night - Jesus Christ, I'm a motorbike" is still one of the best lines ever.
4 comments this item posted by the management 3/18/2010 04:56:00 AM
Book retailing news

This is getting ridiculous. I have now spotted the "Tragic lives" section (abused kid memoirs rather than things like "Michael Gove - My Achievements", as noted by ajay and Alex in comments), but as well as the "Dark Fantasy" section, there is now also a "Dark Romance" shelf. As far as one can tell, both "Dark Fantasy" and "Dark Romance" are for books about having it off with vampires, but it's not clear what the difference is - logic would suggest that one of the two categories is more explicit about the actual vampire-knobbing than the other one, but I feel like logic pretty much went out the window here (the window is also full of vampire sex books).

It's all so horribly undignified. Why can't we go back to the good old days of publishing, when bookshops stocked about a hundred practically identical books about having been a football hooligan in the 80s?

Update: Sam D, in comments, explains what the difference actually is, with the dispirited tone of one who has first hand knowledge.
24 comments this item posted by the management 3/18/2010 01:48:00 AM

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On the other hand, JG Ballard managed it

Premise: When you write at length about something, you invariably end up either falling in love with your subject or growing to hate it.

Conclusion, after many intermediary premises not bothered with: It's a bad idea to write your memoirs, or even to co-operate with a biography. It could almost be seen as a necessary pupal stage in the transition between talented and interesting young person, and dreadful old right-wing bore.
6 comments this item posted by the management 3/17/2010 04:22:00 AM
Freakonomics does Hayek, oh my

How important was Hayek? A JSTOR search will give the answer! With much fuckuppery, including the surprising news that a search for references to Friedrich August (von) Hayek using the term "FH Hayek" doesn't turn up many results. Plenty of methodological issues without which it wouldn't be Freakonomics, but really, on questions like this I tend to take the view that "if something isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well".

The trouble is that this citation count is intrinsically screwed as a methodology - for example, I would hazard a guess that Katarina Juselius would get at least half as many JSTOR citations as Hayek. She was co-author with Soren Johansen[1] of a really amazingly useful paper that sorted out how to test for cointegration in vector-error-correction models and was cited by nearly every applied paper in the 80s and 90s, and she's a perfectly good economist, but I would strongly suspect that my non-Danish general readers had never heard of her.

And even beyond that, take a look at Wolfers' final excuse for this monumentally screwed exercise:

"What’s the point of this analysis, anyway? My personal sense is that Hayek belongs among the 64 Nobel Laureates in Economics. Equally, I don’t think he has had the influence of Smith, Marx, Keynes or Friedman. But that’s just my opinion, and my conjecture isn’t worth much—hence the need to gather data instead. So I came up with my simple comparison. Sure, it’s not perfect, but now at least we’re talking about data, instead of opinions"

Well, yes, we are talking about data instead of opinions, but look at the quality of the answers we're getting - perhaps in context, this is good evidence that we should stop pretending that this is a question that can be answered by data and go back to talking about (reasoned, good-faith) opinions.

I probably wouldn't have written about this if it was merely irritating, but it's actually harmful - I have plenty of good mates who work in the British university system, which is going through a period of funding cuts and in which this sort of performance measurement through citations is absolutely rife. I really do not like the idea of anyone losing their job or having their degree program closed down on the basis of Freakonomics.

[1] Name misspelled out of ignorance of how to do the relevant Unicode, sorry. Update: Misspelling of "Katrina Juselius" rather less excusable and corrected, also sorry.
7 comments this item posted by the management 3/17/2010 01:53:00 AM

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I believe it was Schopenhauer who said, or perhaps it was me ...

For anyone who doesn't start off in that position anyway, I think we can agree that life is basically a constant struggle against one's natural tendency to turn into a pompous old twat. If a man of the talent of Clive James can't manage it, what hope is there for the rest of us?


12 comments this item posted by the management 3/16/2010 02:22:00 AM

Monday, March 15, 2010

None Dare Call It A Mustache

On a perennial theme of this blog - that the "Decent Left"'s partisanship for the state of Israel has very little to do with transferred nationalism and is actually just a result of Israel fitting in conveniently with their own vanity politics, here's Airmiles, kicking it like only he can:

He should have snapped his notebook shut, gotten right back on Air Force Two, flown home and left the following scribbled note behind: "Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious. We need to focus on building our country."

How did he write the note when the first thing he did was snap his notebook shut? But more to the point, see what I mean? Friedman often suggests amazingly stupid diplomatic strategies for dealing with Iran or the Palestinians. But this isn't because he's an Israeli partisan per se, he's just not very bright. When the moment comes round, he'll suggest a moronic piece of pointless grandstanding with respect to the Israelis too.
17 comments this item posted by the management 3/15/2010 07:16:00 AM

Friday, March 12, 2010

Who knew what when?

Hmmm, this World Service story is a bit funny. From comments below, Phil says:

"I collected at the time for War on Want, which did have contacts in Eritrea and Tigray. As far as I was concerned we were collecting the money because people were starving in Eritrea & Tigray, and getting it to the EPLF and TPLF because they were best placed to do something about it. We knew they weren't dedicated humanitarian agencies (the 'PLF' is a clue), and we knew there was the possibility that not all the money would be used for food. So my initial reaction to hearing about this programme was that if the proportion diverted really was as high as 95%, then that was a story. And my second, more cynical reaction was that if the amount diverted hadn't been claimed to be as high as 95%, then there wouldn't have been a story"

An anonymous commenter says:

"I find this story intriguing. Martin Plaut was on the Council of War on Want at the time of these events, when War on Want was the only aid organisation openly providng aid to famine vicitms in areas controlled by the Eritreans and Tigrayans."

Really? Was he? It's hard to find out, but he certainly did write this book published by WoW in 1981, and he is mentioned in this biography of George Galloway, albeit that I can't find a full text search to get context. Googology also turns up this article, which has Plaut inviting the EPLF to a Labour Party conference in 1979.

I have no feel for the reliability of these sources, but taken together and coupled with Plaut's own mention in the story that he "had gone on the long, difficult journey through Sudan and into Eritrea with rebels who had been fighting the government for more than 20 years", it seems pretty clear that he was involved with EPLF, possibly in a capacity related to distributing aid via them. The strange thing here is that Phil remembers the diversion to weapons as being something that WoW were aware of as a risk and prepared to live with, while Plaut is retrospectively surprised by it thirty years later.

It is of course a nasty jolt to suddenly be faced with the possibility that you misjudged people you trusted in the past, but the only source for the claim that more than 90% of the aid was diverted is a disgruntled old guy who lost out in a party power struggle, and as Geldof notes, this isn't really consistent with the mortality outcomes. So I think the evidence points to Plaut having been really quite amazingly naive.
5 comments this item posted by the management 3/12/2010 12:12:00 AM

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thursday music link

I had the idea a while ago of making my bid for literary greatness by simply getting a Mills & Boon romance novel from a railway station bookshop and plagiarising it more or less word for word, except that I would cunningly transpose the setting to a concentration camp. ("Life is Beautiful" had been out recently, and I was becoming irked at the rash of subsequent films and books which had broken out a case of grey-tone face makeup to spray a thin layer of gravitas and moral seriousness over what was basically a genre romcom). I filed it in my bulging binder marked "Conceptual Art Projects Of Dubious Taste, Not Worth Bothering With" and hardly thought about it again, apart from when Ian McEwan's "Saturday" came out and I thought I might repurpose the idea by stealing a M&B wholesale and just putting "These events happened on September 10, 2001" at the front.

But I was going the wrong way. I was thinking "serious" and going for the sallow tones, when I should have been thinking "edgy-cool" and going for fake fangs. My local Waterstones now has an entire shelving unit dedicated to "Dark Fantasy", ie vampire chick lit. The BBC series "Being Human" was explicitly admitted by its creators to have started as a screenplay for a thirtysomething stages-of-life drama, which wasn't really coming together until they decided to use a bit of spray-on ironic monsterdom.

The initial instinct of course, is to be irritated at a cynical rebranding exercise. But actually, I think that something rather more sinister might be happening. Consider: previously, the bookshop used to have a whole rack of innocent, wholesome uncomplicated romance novels, and only a few vampire-porn titles. But now, the vamplit has spread out and the neighbouring shelves have seen their spines turn from pink, to black and red (to the extent that I once mistook "Dark Fantasy" for the military history section).

There's only one sensible conclusion. The vampire novels are biting the romance novels on the neck, and claiming them for the undead.

The Durutti Column

Now I'm off to the bookshop to buy a couple of "Jennings and Darbyshire" books and a Fodor guide to Tehran. Look out for me at the next Booker Prize.
19 comments this item posted by the management 3/11/2010 01:21:00 AM

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nylon is for jazz, tortex is for rock

Indeed. As you can hear, the Jim Dunlop 0.73mm Ultex is a good choice here given the musical context, but I can't help thinking that the middle sections might have benefitted from the extra definition and sharpness you get from a Clayton Acetal at a slightly heavier gauge. Or even my favourite plectrum of all time, the heavy-gauge Gibson Teardrop, now sadly discontinued, but with suitably authenticated vintage editions still fetching prices as high as £3.50 at auction.
7 comments this item posted by the management 3/10/2010 12:51:00 PM
There are no atheists in foxholes, or server moves

As with the death of Little Nell, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh. Apparently, atheist rationalists really want to feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves. Also, when things they've devoted time to and made a part of their identity are not sufficiently respected, they get hurt. Who knew?

In fact this doesn't appear to be a totally Galloway vs Telegraph conflict in which you hope both sides lose; all the real NTBACAI types have lined up in support of Dawkins' web staff (ie the guys with the power), as you knew they would, and a lot of the poor ickle atheists who got screwed and hard do appear to have learned a little bit of a lesson about treating people and reaping what you sow (unrelated, it appears that BACAI, pro/anti is a live debate in the bright community at present, centred around former CT guestblogger Chris Mooney and called "the accomodationist debate". This is a useful piece of titling, as there are lots and lots of different "accomodationist debates" on various subjects around the world and what they all have in common beside the name is that the "accomodationist" side is invariably right and usually quite obviously so). Here's a combination of a cri de coeur and prolegomenon to a discussion of why it is that the atheists (and libertarians, and for some reason Doctor Who fans) are so very susceptible to precisely this sort of problem.

And so the world turns on, meaninglessly, emptily and utterly alone in a godless universe, but at least the bloody thing keeps moving.
47 comments this item posted by the management 3/10/2010 02:51:00 AM

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Guns and Butter

On the whole, I think Rageh Omaar comes out best from the Live Aid / Tigray weapons(?) scandal. Scoring it from the sidelines:

Bob Geldof: A palpable hit in making the point that this sort of story needs to be handled with a hell of a lot of care and sensitivity, because what we're talking about here is the political neutrality of aid organisations, and when this gets undermined, people die. But I think he does actually extend this point to the level where he basically is saying that anyone distributing food in a famine zone is above criticism, and his refutation of the underlying story is of the brick-wall-denial type (with few specifics and a big attack on the critic) that never really convinces me.

Martin Plaut: Found a good story and clearly did meticulous work following it up (this is what I dislike about Geldof's critique - if he's going to systematically gainsay the credibility of all of Plaut's sources, surely the time to do this would have been when he was asked for an interview and declined). But IMO has exaggerated badly and takes a palpable hit on the point of fact that the mortality statistics demonstrate that significant amounts of humanitarian aid was reaching the consumers, meaning that it couldn't have been the case that diversion to military ends was anything like as complete as he suggests.

Rageh Omaar: Basically makes sensible points. I am not a fan of his conflation of "working with" the government of a territory and having your independence compromised - he is correct that the WFP has been pushed around in Somalia by the AQ affiliates who control most of the territory, but it's pretty obvious that there's a qualitative difference rather than a quantitative one between this and gun running.

But I can't help having the reaction ... would it be so very bad if the Tigrayans were spending some of the money on guns, if they needed guns? Getting Mengistu's boot off your throat was a short-term humanitarian need in the 80s, as well as a vital part of any long term development strategy. Obviously aid agencies can't support this sort of thing, and I would not in any way support it myself as a general policy (because of the question of who it is that gets to make the guns/butter decision - in general I would suspect it would be a self-aggrandising local autonomy movement, the functional local equivalent of the Decent Left). But in the context of a genuine national liberation movement with genuine popular support? I don't want to set a massive universalised moral condemnathon for those cases in which the decision goes to weapons rather than food. Bullets are like cigarettes - no matter how poor you are, you find a way of affording them.
15 comments this item posted by the management 3/09/2010 11:57:00 PM
More of those cryptic quizzes

This one's probably not that hard in that if you get one, it will help you with at least one and probably both the others:

What links:

1) An infinite number of monkeys
2) Tits
3) The collapse of the Lloyd's market?
9 comments this item posted by the management 3/09/2010 10:07:00 AM
I still can't stop thinking about "paleo-diets"

This article (already noted here) is still on my mind. It's just so wonderfully ridiculous. What I noticed on re-reading it, however, is this passage:

"The one thing that Mr. Durant worries might spook a female guest is his most recent purchase: a three-foot-tall refrigerated meat locker that sits in a corner of his living room. That is where he keeps his organ meat and deer ribs."

1. Why the bulk purchasing and separate meat locker? What are the evolutionary benefits of not just purchasing a normal amount of meat and keeping it in your normal fridge?

2. More fundamentally, what's with the fucking fridge, Captain Caveman? Surely he should be eating his meat like they did on the veldt - warm and more than slightly gamey.

Mr. Le Corre, 38, who once made soap for a living, promotes what he calls "mouvement naturel" at exercise retreats in West Virginia and elsewhere. His workouts include scooting around the underbrush on all fours, leaping between boulders, playing catch with stones, and other activities at which he believes early man excelled. These are the "primal, essential skills that I believe everyone should have," he said in an interview.

20 comments this item posted by the management 3/09/2010 05:50:00 AM

Monday, March 08, 2010

Thursday Music Link, here on a Monday

I was travelling and forgot this one ... following on from last week's discussion of the way things date, it struck me that despite having nearly every late-80s cliche going - synthesised piano, the Roland 808, stuttering samples etc - Ride On Time never really sounded dated to me, even at times when nearly everything else recorded that year did. I think it's because it's one of those songs (Ace of Spades would also be in this category) which encapsulates everything about a genre, to the extent that there's really nothing left to say.
3 comments this item posted by the management 3/08/2010 06:17:00 AM

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I'm pretty sure you have to have some calcium in there somewhere

According to a man who writes a column for a newspaper which believes itself to be the English-speaking world's definitive paper of record:

"If you combine CO2 with seawater, or any kind of briny water, you produce CaCO3, calcium carbonate."

Are you sure about that Airmiles?

I have no opinion one way or the other about the industrial process described or its large-scale viability (specifically because I don't know whether the world's oceans do or don't have lots of calcium dissolved in them, or whether tanker-loads of seawater can be transported to coal-burning power stations at reasonable cost, plus what do you do with the waste water), but I do have a couple of quite strong ones about the kind of person who will write such an obviously self-contradictory sentence without even thinking for a moment about how you put NaCl, CO2 and H2O together, and get Calcium anythingate. And of the presumed army of subs, fact-checkers and assorted hangers-on who enable him to print it; as IOZ, who I lifted this link from, correctly notes, this really does look like a commercial press release.

Update: See comments for speculation on how they actually do it, and envelope calculations showing that seawater can't possibly be the general solution. But note also a quite perfect Friedmanism with respect to the hero worship of Vinod Khosla. The scientist behind the calcium carbonate technology is someone called Brent Costantz, and he gets one solitary mention . Friedman knows who the real hero is - a rich bloke who bought some shares.

Update update: I am told by an ile-bidness pal from way back that people who are in the know will use the term "brine" to refer to any water with a lot of metal salts of any kind dissolved in it; there are lots of brines underground which are loaded with calcium and magnesium chlorides rather than the sort you might use for making sauerkraut. Which is probably where "briny water" came from, although "any kind of briny water" is still clearly wrong as you wouldn't be able to use briny water that didn't have a lot of calcium salts dissolved in it.

Double chemistry update: not just metal salts apparently! There are organic salts too! If you dissolved a load of cocaine hydrochloride in water, there are apparently some people out there who would call that a "brine". Presumably if the cocaine hydrochloride in question had been bought in a Camden nightclub, there would be quite a bit of calcium carbonate in there too.

I can't help noticing, by the way, that in the Calera FAQ the question arises "What will happen to the hydrochloric acid?". This is almost always a good question to ask.
10 comments this item posted by the management 3/07/2010 09:12:00 AM

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