Saturday, October 27, 2007

North, South, Britishness and Class

Class is everywhere in Britain. Middle class people seem obsessed by it and often write insightful articles about the attitudes of the middle class (guilt and fear) and (presumably from observation through a powerful telescope) the attitudes of the working class/poor people.

Class is one of those issues I feel very strongly about but have absolutely no idea what I feel. Is it a problem, or is it part of our national identity and therefore something to be celebrated? Is it right or wrong? Should we be proud of and identify with our fated caste?

Recently there has been much discussion over some research from Sheffield University over the "new North-South divide." This fits in with discussion of class: as with class, most of the debate centres around the stereotypes: the comfortable, Daily Mail-reading, wine drinking suburbanite southerner and the poor, flat-cap wearing, beer-swilling, urban (or rural?) Northerner.

Recently I was in Lancaster (in the North) and saw a poster advertising a particular brand of chewing gum. The tagline was: "softer than a shandy-drinking southerner". The advert was remarkably fit for purpose. It also occurred to me that the advertiser had done an excellent job plugging into (presumably) local feelings of identifying with "the North."

I also wondered what the distribution for this poster could be expected to be. I was surprised when, after taking the train from Lancaster to Birmingham, I saw the same advert in Birmingham.

So if Sheffield University thinks the North-South divide runs between Bristol and the Humber Estuary, where do Cadbury Schweppes think it is, based on the distribution of their inspired advertising campaign.

Disclosure: I am a major shareholder in Cadbury Schweppes. No, just kidding! I don't even like chewing gum that much.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mechanism Design

There is a fascinating article over at Reason Online about the theory of "mechanism design" and how it won Leonid Hurwicz, Eric Maskin, and Roger Myerson the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Mechanism design is the study of how to create institutions that produce desirable outcomes whilst respecting privacy of the individuals the institution interacts with, and respecting the fact that individuals are self interested.

The "institution" in this context is taken as a simple mechanism that takes input from "agents" or individuals and produces some output.

This is very relevant to the UK today. Our current government has adopted a fairly authoritarian attitude towards the public. ID cards, DNA databases, and increased surveillance (2) are all aspects of this tendency towards advocating control and authority.

I don't have particularly strong feelings on any of these issues. I doubt very much whether any ID card biometric databases would be competently administered.

However I think it is worth studying how institutions (like the state) behave.

According to the article on Reason Online, it is fairly difficult to "design" such mechanisms from the ground up. The free market functions, but is prone to failures and interference. States function, but are also prone to failures and also tend to extend the influence of the state.

I am interested to see if any of these economic theories are ever applied in real life. Presumably one day we will stumble across an optimum method for dealing with scarcity (but, I suspect, not before scarcity itself has been reduced somewhat by technological factors), a sort of Economics 2.0.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bjorn Lomborg

I've just been reading a profile of Bjorn Lomborg on the Times Online. Lomborg has recently published a book: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. Lomborg (there is a o with a cross through it in the vowel of his first name) seems to be talking a lot of sense: he accepts that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity but rejects the belief that we should place "stopping global warming" at the top of our list of priorities, because:

A: No one is actually really doing anything to stop global warming. If we are serious about reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and methane then we would immediately take certain steps. This simply isn't happening on the scale required to make a difference. Ergo, if no one really intends to do anything then there's no point doing anything, as the consequences of a full-blown global warming event will be equally devastating as a minor full-blown global warming event (i.e. one where we try to reduce our emissions somewhat).

B: There are much bigger problems in the world that we can see are causing suffering right now and that can be clearly and conclusively linked to various factors: the spread of AIDS in the African continent, the decreasing availability of crude oil and natural gas, wars in Iraq and elsewhere. All these are more immediately important than anthropogenic global warming and the problems are on a scale that makes it more plausible that we might be able to do something about them.

Lomborg suggests an annual $25 billion fund to study global warming. He also suggests that the problem can be solved through technological means.

As is observed in the profile the biggest criticism that can be levied against Lomborg is that of techno-utopianism. That he rejects what many environmentalists believe is the only workable solution to anthropogenic global warming: a harsh and sustained lessening of human ambition in terms of our industry and some elements of our standard of living.

Another criticism is that he underestimates the impact of global warming. I find it irritating when environmentalist charities publish images of natural disasters as "evidence of global warming" - as if natural disasters haven't always happened, and often aren't connected with the atmosphere (c.f. the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Majil Earthquake of 1990, the Landers Earthquake etc), or as if "climate change" hasn't occurred in the past. I suspect we'll never be able to accurately quantify the "impact" of climate change, but we've come up with some reasonable predictions of the impact and how the problem should be dealt with.

However the basic question is this: "Is there something humanity can do right now to prevent enormous and avoidable suffering in the future without unacceptable sacrifice now?"

I count creating an international superstate powerful enough to override the will of all other authorities in the pursuit of a reduction in emissions as an unacceptable sacrifice. I also count any reduction of development and industrialisation (if these are what is takes to improve the standard of living) in developing countries as an unacceptable sacrifice.

Another of my hang-ups concerning environmentalism is the refusal to discuss cost-benefit in terms of climate change. Environmentalists tend to view the Earth (a lump of iron and silicates with a thin outer layer of volatiles and light elements) as some king of spiritual being or godlike entity that must be worshiped. There hasn't been any mainstream discussion of benefit along the lines suggested by Freeman Dyson in this recent article at

Consider the following two scenarios:

1. Sub-Saharan Africa is given a certain number of carbon credits. The constituent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are each encouraged (by the USA, EU and China) to sell these credits to multinational corporations (based in the USA, EU and China) and also directly to the USA, EU and China.

The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa do this, and get a lot of money, which is spent on aid but cannot be spent on industrialisation, as the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are now required to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide. As a result there is some improvement but on the whole living standards remain behind those of the USA, EU and China.

Over the next century a series of environmental and ecological disasters that are strongly linked to anthropogenic global warming (largely caused by the emissions of the USA, EU and China) wracks Sub-Saharan Africa, millions die or are displaced. The EU struggles to cope with the influx of refugees. There is a humanitarian crisis of a scale unseen in human history.

2. Sub-Saharan Africa is given a certain number of carbon credits. The constituent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are each encouraged (by the USA, EU and China) to sell these credits to multinational corporations (based in the USA, EU and China) and also directly to the USA, EU and China.

The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa do not do this, and begin the long and sometimes painful process of industrialisation. As a result there is a constant and sustainable improvement in living standards until Sub-Saharan Africa has parity with those of the USA, EU and China.

Over the next century a series of environmental and ecological disasters that are strongly linked to anthropogenic global warming wracks Sub-Saharan Africa, there is enormous suffering, but the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are now rich and developed enough to take it on the chin. They invest in flood defences, irrigation, advanced farming methods, nuclear power, air conditioning, and continue to thrive and prosper despite the changing climate.

This is based on the assumption that little positive action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, and that the West represses industrialisation in developing countries.

I agree with Lomborg in his rejection of the idea that we should scale back human ambition in the face of global warming and climate change. I don't see why we should stand for it. I'm also increasingly uneasy about the lack of positive action being taken.

I feel if the nation states of the world feel that it is necessary to scale back industry, commerce, transport, and generally dismantle the machinery of globalisation (I have no clue as to whether globalisation is a good thing or not, let me finish, don't bug me...) then they should do it. I suspect this would be a Bad Idea, but I would be hard pressed to prevent them from doing so if they wished.

On the other hand if they're not going to do anything serious then they should stop wasting time and money on point-scoring commentary and pointless prevarication. I gather from what Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth et al are saying that action needs to take place now and it needs to be widespread and drastic. Anything less won't help, so why bother?

It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation in this respect: we can choose to promote technological and industrial development or we can choose to scale back industrialisation and the use of technology. In the first case we are better prepared to deal with climate change, in the second we're hoping it won't happen.

In conclusion I would say that I agree with Lomborg's arguments (as they have been reported, I haven't read his book) but suspect that he might perhaps be underestimating the scale of the problem, but I do believe it isn't beyond human ingenuity to come to an acceptable compromise between our ambitions and our prosperity or successfully deal with the consequences of inaction.

Note: I don't actually believe carbon trading is pointless (though it is potentially controversial) but I'll leave it in because I like the alliteration.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Strider Robot

I love how elegantly designed this three-legged robot is. With regards to a War of the World's full-sized model, the pilot would have to be suspended in a gyroscope within the body. The gyroscope would keep the pilot steady as the mechanism moved.

As to the application suggested in the video: this puts me in mind of Minority Report, and the scene where tiny three-legged robots are released into a building by policemen to identify every individual's (John Anderton/Cruise hides in an ice-filled bathtub to disguise his heat-signature from the IR-sensitive robots) iris.

One more step towards the Panopticon State.

Stephen Fry is Blogging

...and his blog is excellent. Superbly well-written, rather like the text-based equivalent of an episode of The West Wing. You feel you could lose yourself in the words even if they contained nothing of interest (and the articles are fascinating). Fry's posts have so far covered consumer electronics (yay!) and an in-depth analysis of the fame phenomenon, so they are fascinating in and of themselves as well as being brilliantly written.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Toynbee vs. Inequality

Hari has always impressed me with his insightful articles on a wide range of topics, and his ability to come to reasonable conclusions. I’ve always felt the social-democratic commentator Polly Toynbee concentrates too much on top-down methods of “solving” inequality.

7 out of Toynbee’s most recent 32 articles revolve around criticising the extremely wealthy for avoiding taxes, or the government for allowing the extremely wealthy to avoid taxes, or simply stating that executive pay is too large, the workers in the City are paid to much and it is disgraceful that the UK has become a tax haven.

She is right to say these things but I can’t help feeling that there are much bigger and more immediately practical issues to concentrate on, like the state of the bottom ten percent in terms of income, or the environment, or education. I suspect Toynbee has been suffering just as much as the rest of the upper middle classes when it comes to the recent influx of HNWIs and UHNWIs. My feeling is that there will always be rich people for whom the rules are slightly different, and I suspect that on balance these rich people are virtue-neutral, if not a slightly positive influences on our society. I think the biggest problem is that for anyone north of Slough, the problem is not extreme wealth (as it is in London) but extreme poverty, and Toynbee has found herself too far south of the border.

She should be concentrating her considerable talents as a polemicist on discussing ways for reducing poverty, not whining about the extremes of wealth that some enjoy. Obsessing over wealth makes her position unattractive to those she is trying to persuade (it reeks of the politics of envy) and alienates her from her natural supporters - the poor and the needy, for whom the world of non-doms, hedgies, private-equity barons and billionaire oligarchs remains frustratingly distant and inconsequential.


The eminently sensible Johann Hari has written an article on geoengineering. Geo-engineering is essentially the deliberate modification of Earth’s environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability. This concept has always remained anathema to most Deep Greens (environmentalists who would go as far as to say that human populations need to be reduced in order to combat the damage we’re doing to the environment) and even fairly moderate environmentalists.

Arguments against such an endeavour from the point of hubris fall because we’ve already had a huge effect on our environment and planetary atmosphere, albeit unintentionally. The landscape of Britain is essentially manmade (and very nice it is too).

The most appropriate argument against geoengineering, as pointed out by Hari, is that we have no way of predicting the consequences of any of the things we do to the atmosphere. We’re not even sure at the moment how increased levels of carbon dioxide will effect the weather. We can say “there will be warming” but we can’t say when and where and how large the effect will be. Changes in salt levels in the Atlantic may cause the Gulf Stream to shut down, stopping the current of warm water that has kept Northern Europe warm and habitable for most of the last few centuries.

I think geoengineering, as with that other controversial and much-criticised practice, genetic engineering, are worth looking into but large steps towards a workable project should only be made once we have more understanding of the systems involved.

Transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil argue that as our knowledge of how our bodies and brains function is increasing in a manner similar to an exponential curve, it may be sooner rather than later that we can alter ourselves significantly. I imagine that the same trend is applicable to our study of how the climate functions.

However I agree with Hari that we are not yet ready for serious geoengineering and should concentrate on reducing our output of greenhouse gases.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Self Help

There is an interesting article in Wired here about Self-Help Guru David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” technique to enhance personal productivity.

Despite being a Self-Help Guru Allen is apparently a boring, analytical person – he has even been accused of “going overboard with elaborate schemes.” The big problem with Self-Help from my point of view is that is relies too much on inspirational-sounding but meaningless catchphrases and the charisma of the Guru and not enough on the application of methodical methods to help people in their daily lives. Allen seems to have spotted this problem, and exploited the gap in the market.

The basic rules are:

1. Collect and describe all the stuff [anything we want or need to do]. Everything must be inventoried without distinction or prejudice. Errands, emails, a problem with a friend: It all must be noted for processing. Small objects, such as an invitation or a receipt, go into a pile. Everything else can be represented with a few words on a piece of paper ("find keys," "change jobs"). Once the stuff is collected, processing begins. Anything that requires two minutes or less is handled on the spot. The remainder is governed by the second rule.

2. All stuff must be handled in a precise way. Allen offers dozens of clever tricks for classifying, labeling, and retrieving stuff. Expert users of GTD never leave old emails cluttering their inbox, for instance. Nor do they have to rifle through a bunch of paper to see if there's anything crucial they've left undone. Emails to be answered are in a separate folder from emails that merely have to be read; there's a file for every colleague and friend; stuff that must be done has been identified and placed on one of several kinds of to-do lists. Allen calls his to-do lists next-action lists, which are subject to the third rule.

  1. Items on next-action lists should be described as concretely as possible. Breaking down stuff into physical actions, Allen says, is the key to getting things done.

This puts me in mind of an excerpt from The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett. The protagonist, Masklin, has the task of dragging a rat across two fields. This is an impossible task for a twelve centimetre-high Nome (what – you didn’t know he was a Nome? Go read the books, they’re brilliant…), so he applies implacable Nome logic to the problem, from Truckers by Terry Pratchett:

“The way to deal with an impossible task was to chop it down into a number of merely very difficult tasks, and break each one of them into a group of horribly hard tasks, and each one of them into tricky jobs, and each one of them... {and so on}”

The key to happiness in to define the problems you have, write them down, and deal immediately with those that can be dealt with immediately. Then proceed to the other problems, break them down into a series of actions, whilst retaining the ultimate goal.

I have to say that for a *ahem* Self-Help Guru, Allen speaks a lot of sense.