For my 2004 economics diary, go here.

Economics - 2005

John Baez

January 2, 2005

Happy New Year! I spent yesterday replacing all the tires on my car, since one had gone flat while I was visiting Paris and my parents in Virginia over the Christmas break.

With my recent obsessive interest in climate change, mass extinctions and the like, I should have something to say about the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. But all I have to say for now is: send some money to help people! I like Doctors Without Borders, so I gave them 200 bucks.

One often wonders, with charities, how much of your money is actually going to the bigshots who run the organization. According to their 2003 financial statement, about 86% of their money goes to program services, while 12% goes to fundraising and 2% goes to management. They get an A rating (though not an A+) from American Institute of Philanthropy, and 3 stars (though not 4) from Charity Navigator.

It reassures me that Doctors Without Borders make their financial information really easy to find on their website: you click "about us" and there it is. Try to find this sort of information for the American Red Cross, starting from their homepage! Click "about us"... and you won't find it. In theory you can find it in just three clicks, but you have to be clever.

Just a couple of small items today...

Here's a book that looks good:

According to the review by Alfred W. Crosby in today's Los Angeles Times, Diamond is an ornithologist and a UCLA professor of physiology and geography, who has travelled widely, read lots of history, and analyzed many societies to see what makes them collapse - or not. The book goes through lots of examples and compares them on 5 factors:
  1. Environmental damage inflicted
  2. Climate change
  3. Hostile neighbors
  4. Friendly neighbors
  5. The society's response to all of the above
For example, he talks about how the Greenlanders died out in the 1400s after cutting down all the trees and tearing up the sod for fuel when the "Little Ice Age" hit them, in part because they were hostile to the local Inuit instead of adopting their ways, while support from friendly neighbors dropped off as expanding sea ice blocked trade routes and European demand for walrus ivory declined. Sounds reminiscent of this book I mentioned a while back:

However, he goes further by comparing the case of the Icelanders, who didn't die out!

Jared Diamond has also thought a lot about why human history unfolded differently on different continents - and he won a Pulitzer for this book, whose title explains his theory quite succinctly:

You can also read a talk by him about this, on Edge - a fun forum for highbrow chat.

Also, alpheccar recommended this site to me:

In this diary I've been avoiding the "trench warfare" over climate change, more or relying on the general consensus of scientists. But this website gets engaged in the nitty-gritty in a well-informed and generally well-mannered way.

For example, you may know that Michael Crichton's new novel State of Fear is based on the premise that human-induced global warming is just a bunch of hot air - something like a massive conspiracy of scientists bent on terrifying the public. Some hacks have seized on this book to push their own agendas. For example, George Will writes:

In today's segmented America, Michael Crichton's new novel "State of Fear" might seem to be just reading for red states. Granted, a character resembling Martin Sheen -- Crichton's character is a prototypical Hollywood liberal who plays the president in a television series -- meets an appropriately grisly fate. But blue states, too -- no, especially -- need Crichton's fable about the ecology of public opinion.

"State of Fear," with a first printing of 1.5 million copies, resembles Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" -- about 6 million copies sold since 1957 -- as a political broadside woven into an entertaining story. But whereas Rand had only an idea -- a good one (capitalism is splendid), but only one -- Crichton has information. "State of Fear" is the world's first page-turner that people will want to read in one gulp (a long gulp -- 600 pages, counting appendices) even though it has lots of real scientific graphs, and footnotes citing journals such as Progress in Physical Geography and Transactions of the American Geophysical Union.

Crichton's subject is today's fear that global warming will cause catastrophic climate change, a belief now so conventional that it seems to require no supporting data. Crichton's subject is also how conventional wisdom is manufactured in a credulous and media-drenched society.

Various factions have interests -- monetary, political, even emotional -- in cultivating fears. The fears invariably seem to require more government subservience to environmentalists, and more government supervision of our lives.

Crichton's villains are environmental hysterics who are innocent of information but overflowing with certitudes and moral vanity. His heroes resemble Navy SEALs tenured at MIT, foiling the villains with guns and graphs.

The villains are frustrated because the data do not prove that global warming is causing rising sea levels and other catastrophes. So they concoct high-tech schemes to manufacture catastrophes they can ascribe to global warming -- flash floods in the American West, the calving of an Antarctic iceberg 100 miles across and a tsunami that would roar 500 miles an hour across the Pacific and smash California's coast on the last day of a Los Angeles conference on abrupt climate change.

The theory of global warming -- Crichton says warming has amounted to just half a degree Celsius in 100 years -- is that "greenhouse gases," particularly carbon dioxide, trap heat on Earth, causing ... well, no one knows what, or when. Crichton's heroic skeptics delight in noting things like the decline of global temperature from 1940 to 1970. And that since 1970 glaciers in Iceland have been advancing. And that Antarctica is getting colder and its ice is getting thicker.

... and so on. Of course, it's a good sign that people like Will have now been reduced to citing science fiction novels instead of actual scientists to bolster their arguments! And he's just funny when he tut-tuts about "monetary, political, and even emotional" motives for alarmism, while ignoring the vastly greater motives of all three kinds for complacency: the whole geopolitical and economic status quo rests upon the fossil fuel economy, after all. So, in a sane world we could safely ignore Will. But Crichton presents some surprising actual data in his book, which needs to be analyzed. It's good, therefore that the folks at RealClimate are addressing him point for point:


January 8, 2005

There's a good article in the MIT magazine "Technology Review" about the war that may start between Microsoft and Google:

Summary: will Microsoft crush Google as it did Netscape? Yes, unless the folks at Google are smart and ruthless. Making the currently visible world-wide web easy to search was great - but the real battle is starting now that Google and Microsoft are trying to make all digital information eash to search. According to the author, the industry consensus is that this could generate half a trillion dollars in cumulative revenues.

While the battle for supreme control over information in this "information age" is fascinating - in a mildly sickening sort of way - my eye was caught by a little chart that showed the amount of information in various forms. It pointed me to this source:

which also referred to this: Here's some data from these sources, supplemented by some examples of my own:

You have to be careful interpreting these figures. For example, all the information in the Washington Post newspaper in 2002 is far less than the information capacity  of all the newsprint put out by the Washington Post of 2002 - because there are thousands of identical copies of each newspaper. I have tried to distinguish between these two by saying "capacity" for the latter sort of figure. For example, when I say 130 petabytes is the capacity of all audio tapes produced in 2002, this includes thousands of identical copies of some album by the Backstreet Boys, and also lots of blank tape. And, it's quite possible that I screwed up on some of the items above, because my source makes it a bit hard to tell what's what.

Furthermore, these figures don't count the fact that information in print, hard drives, DNA and so on is typically not compressed down to the Shannon limit. So, there's not as much info around as this chart suggests. For some figures that try to take compression into account, see How Much Information?   2003.

For example, this compression issue is especially important in my guess at the information in the human genome, and the genomes of all the people in the world. I didn't try to take into account the immense overlap in genetic information between different people, nor the repetitive stretches in human DNA. Here's how I did the calculation. Each of us has chromosomes with about 5 billion base pairs. Each base pair holds 2 bits of information: A, T, C, or G. That's 10 billion bits or 1.25 gigabytes. Times the roughly 6.5 billion people in the world now, we get about 8 x 1018 bytes, or 8 exabytes. But, if we wanted to store the complete genetic identity of everyone on hard drives, we could do it using data compression, because a lot of genes are the same from person to person.

And of course, some of these figures are rough order-of-magnitude guesses, like "all the words ever spoken by human beings".

It would be fun to know how much information is in people's brains, but I don't have the knowhow to estimate that!

I just read from an unreliable source that the human eye has a resolution equivalent to that of 127 million pixels (whatever that means), and an input rate of 1 gigabit per second. This source also said that the human brain can store 10 terabytes of information. But, I don't trust these figures at all without knowing how they were calculated.

I read somewhere else that the human brain has 1014 synapses. If each stored just one bit (not true), that would be about 10 terabytes.


January 11, 2005

I have put the above information on information on a separate webpage, together with a fun calculation: how much information there is in a raindrop! As you can probably tell, I like compiling charts of cool data just as much as I like crusading for social justice and a better way of life. The former keeps me happy.

But, in the same MIT magazine as the article about Google versus Microsoft, there's also an interesting article on "why progress doesn't boost happiness" - a theme I began discussing on October 22nd, 2003:

It has an interesting reference: and it describes a growing interest on the part of economists to understand the factors that lead to human happiness, without the blinding simplifying assumption of perfect rationality. Unfortunately it doesn't go into the question of how this research might actually be used to make people happier! Oh well... maybe someday.


February 5, 2005

My interest in economics hasn't waned... I've just been too busy to write in this diary much, especially when I've been travelling, and more recently when the hard disk on my laptop died after a mysterious stroke. This happened the moment I tried to use the internet after returning from Vancouver; the last time I'd used the internet was in an airport in Seattle. At first I thought I'd picked up a virus there, but now I'm not sure - the disk may have been physically damaged.

All the data on this disk was lost. Luckily, most of it was also on my account on the UNIX system of the U.C. Riverside math department. In the process of setting up my laptop again from scratch, I switched from Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox - mainly because it works great, it handles math text better, and it's supposed to be safer - but also because it's nice to see Microsoft getting some competition in this market.

Anyway, I just read some interesting stuff about Joshua Greene, a postdoc in psychology at Princeton who is using functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan people's brains while they deal with ethical dilemmas. In certain dilemmas where ones "gut feeling" wars against more rational calculations - say, where killing a baby could save a town - it turns out that centers of the brain that deal with emotion are very active, but also the anterior cingulate cortex (an area involved in monitoring conflict) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region involved in abstract reasoning and cognitive control).

In an article published in Nature Reviews:

Greene describes two ethical dilemmas. In the first, you're driving along in your new car with beautiful leather seats and you see someone who has been run down on the road, his legs bleeding. Do you sacrifice the beauty of your suede seats and take him to the hospital? I think we all viscerally know what we should do here, regardless of whether we'd do it. In the second, you get a letter from a reputable charity asking you to send a $100 check, which could provide vaccine for dozens of infants in some faraway country. Here the visceral response is less strong, even though (Greene and others argue) the situation is morally equivalent. Why? Because the people in trouble are more distant, and it all seems more abstract. Greene suggests that our emotions (and indeed our brains) have evolved to respond immediately to the clearly perceived suffering of someone right at hand, but not to, say, appeals in written text.

All this makes perfect sense to me, and it raises the issue of to what extent we should spend more energy to alleviate suffering close at hand, versus those far away. To what extent should we try to overcome our inherited instincts to help relatives and "the tribe", and to what extent are these instincts wise?

Interestingly, Joshua Greene did research with Amartya Sen as an undergraduate.


February 6, 2005

My friend the philosopher David Corfield wrote an interesting reply to my remarks above. I got to know him through his work on the philosophy of "real mathematics", which pays more attention than usual to what actual mathematicians are interested in. He's also interested in the ethics of mathematics - what makes some mathematical work better than others. So, here's what he has to say:

I see from your economics entry you're getting interested in ethics. The guy to read is Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue begins by getting us to imagine a time after a period in which science has been systematically destroyed, scientists, equipment, books, etc. Now, all we're left with are fragments of language, papers, pieces of equipment. There are still vestiges of scientific language in daily speech, but they're used totally unsystematically. This, says MacIntyre, is what has happened to moral thinking. A tradition of moral theorising from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, on to neo-platatonists such as Augustine, interpreters, Jewish and Islamic, of Aristotle, the great reconciliation of Augustine and Aristotle by Aquinas, has been laid to waste. The Enlightenment doesn't come out looking too clever.

A bold thesis certainly. Strangely what he says about flourishing traditions and the necessary virtues rings very true of intellectual traditions:

A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual's search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual's life is a part, and this is true both of those goods which are internal to practices and of the goods of a single life. Once again the narrative phenomenon of embedding is crucial: the history of a practice in our time is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer history of the tradition through which the practice in its present form was conveyed to us; the history of each of our own lives is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer histories of a number of traditions. I have to say 'generally and characteristically' rather than 'always', for traditions decay, disintegrate and disappear. What then sustains and strengthens traditions? What weakens and destroys them?

The answer in key part is: the exercise or the lack of exercise of the relevant virtues. The virtues find their point and purpose not only in sustaining those relationships necessary if the varieties of goods internal to practices are to be achieved and not only in sustaining the form of an individual life in which that individual may seek out his or her good as the good of his or her whole life, but also in sustaining those traditions which provide both practices and individual lives with their necessary historical context. Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues - these corrupt traditions, just as they do those institutions and practices which derive their life from the traditions of which they are the contemporary embodiments. To recognize this is of course also to recognize the existence of an additional virtue, one whose importance is perhaps most obvious when it is least present, the virtue of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs or which confront one. This virtue is not to be confused with any form of conservative antiquarianism; I am not praising those who choose the conventional conservative role of laudator temporis acti. It is rather the case that an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present. Living traditions, just because they continue a not-yet-completed narrative, confront a future whose determinate and determinable character, so far as it possesses any, derives from the past. (After Virtue: 222-3)


February 18, 2005

The Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases was signed by 187 countries on Feburary 16th! Notably absent were the United States and Australia.

New research in oceanography warns that global warming might actually cause a repeat of the Younger Dryas Event, in which melting ice reduced the salinity of the North Atlantic enough to shut down the thermohaline circulation that brings warm water to the shores of Northern Europe. I wrote about this possibility already on November 13th. Here is some news, from an article by Clive Cookson in today's Financial Times:

Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California have been working for several years with colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to analyse the effects of global warming on the oceans. They combined computer modelling with millions of temperature and salinity readings, taken around the world at different depths over five decades.

The researchers released their conclusions on Friday at the American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington. They found that the warming signals in the oceans could only have been produced by the build-up of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Non-human factors would have produced quite different effects.

The latest study to suggest that global warming is a real phenomenon, and one caused by human action, adds further weight to a body of scientific evidence that has been accumulating steadily.

Tim Barnett, the Scripps project leader, said previous attempts to show that human activities caused global warming had looked for evidence in the atmosphere. "But the atmosphere is the worst place to look for a global warming signal", he said. Ninety per cent of the energy from global warming has gone into the oceans and the oceans show its fingerprint much better than the atmosphere.

Prof Barnett added: "The debate over whether there is a global warming signal is over now at least for rational people". He urged the US administration to rethink its refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol, which took effect this week.

The Scripps scientists also looked at the likely climatic effects of the warming they observed. They highlighted the impact on regional water supplies, which would be severely reduced during the summer in places that depend on rivers fed by melting winter snow and glaciers such as western China and the South American Andes.

The conference also heard a gloomy analysis of the way the North Atlantic Ocean is reacting to global warming from Ruth Curry of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Her new study showed that vast amounts of fresh water more than 20,000 cubic kilometres have been added to the northernmost parts of the ocean over the past 40 years because the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets are melting.

According to Dr. Curry, the resulting change in the salinity balance of the water threatens to shut down the Ocean Conveyor Belt, which transfers heat from the tropics towards the polar regions through currents such as the Gulf Stream. If that happened, winter temperatures in northern Europe would fall by several degrees.

I don't know how bad such an event would be - and I guess nobody does - but during the Younger Dryas, temperatures in Northern Europe dropped 7 degrees Celsius in only 20 years, causing a miniature ice age with glaciers in Europe that lasted for about 1000 years before the Conveyor Belt restarted. So, "several degrees" might be a big deal. Or maybe not.


February 25, 2005

Yay! It seems there's a kind of "movement" of people working on the kind of economics I'd like to see - some of them call it "Post-Autistic Economics":

They put out a free email journal, and you can also see the back issues online.

I haven't actually read much of this stuff yet to see how much I agree with it, but I like the look of this book they're advertising:

I also like some of these quotes:
Multinationals are everywhere except in economic theories and economics departments. - Grazia Ietto-Gillies
The close to monopoly position of neoclassical economics is not compatible with normal ideas about democracy. Economics is science in some senses, but is at the same time ideology. Limiting economics to the neoclassical paradigm means imposing a serious ideological limitation. Departments of economics become political propaganda centers. - Peter Söderbaum, author of "Ecological Economics"
and best of all:
In Smith is a forgotten lesson that the foundation of success in creating a constructive classical liberal society lies in the individuals adherence to a common social ethics. According to Smith, virtue serves as the fine polish to the wheels of society while vice is like the vile rust, which makes them jar and grate upon one another. Indeed, Smith sought to distance his thesis from that of Mandeville and the implication that individual greed could be the basis for social good. Smith's deistic universe might not sit well with those of post-enlightenment sensibilities, but his understanding that virtue is a prerequisite for a desirable market society remains an important lesson. For Smith ethics is the hero - not self-interest or greed - for it is ethics that defend social intercourse from the Hobbesian chaos. - Charles K. Wilber
I learned about this website from Colin Danby, who wrote:
Greetings.

Ran across your interesting site. If ucr is UC Riverside there are folks there in econ who might interest you.

Have you read Phil Mirowski's work? More Heat than Light is the classic and gives you a sense of the assumptions (19th-century physics) that mainstream econ descends from, but all of Mirowski is interesting.

And there are kinds of econ that start from very different sets of assumptions, for example Post Keynesian theory. Timothy Mitchell's Rule of Experts is a very smart exploration of how economic expertise came to do what it does.

You might also like the Post-Autistic Economics site: http://www.paecon.net/

Best, Colin


February 26, 2005

Colin Danby also gave me some other links:

Lots of reading for me to do!

Last night I read this short paper:

It's a retrospective on John K. Galbraith's book The Affluent Society, which back in the 1950s raised for the first time a bunch of questions which puzzle us still, like: why does life in the affluent societies of Europe and America resemble life on a squirrel wheel, with its endless quest for more consumable goods?

Quoting the aptly named Shaun Heap:

Few cannot be puzzled by the appetite of the affluent. The absence of any measurable effect of income growth on happiness is only one part of what is strange here. The failure to take measures that will address the global warming that has been and continues to be generated by output growth increasingly appears like some form of death wish. There are also more local pathologies. The highest earners in the UK and the US actually work longer hours than their counterparts 20 years ago. So the pursuit of more stuff is seemingly ornamental because the getting of it is now cutting into the time that we have left to play with it. To put the issue bluntly, if we could for one moment step outside the squirrel wheel, surely we would conclude that we are interested in output growth to an extent which casts doubt on whether we actually know where our interests lie anymore. For these reasons, the subject of Galbraith's book is even more timely now than it was in the late 1950s.

How relevant, though, is Galbraith's analysis of the dynamics of the squirrel wheel for the contemporary world?

I have two criticisms here. The first is perhaps best summarised as a failure to anticipate the problem of identity. I believe that this holds the key to understanding why consumption is so central to our lives. There are two parts to this observation. One is that while one kind of insecurity does disappear with full employment, the collapse of traditional bonds of one kind or another in the modern world has made personal identity more fluid and with this fluidity comes another kind of insecurity. It is no coincidence that people talk now of identity politics. The term reflects the way in which identity has become problematic. So Galbraith was wrong to assume that full employment pushes insecurity into the background.

At the same time, consumer goods have more clearly come to form a language system. This is the important insight that anthropology gives economics. We use consumer goods to say things about ourselves and as our identity has become less well fixed through traditional bonds of one kind or another, we have had increasing recourse to the world of goods to do it for us. (Incidentally, this means that advertising is not so much a conspiracy, as Galbraith seems to hint: it actually works with the grain of human nature. And while making parenthetic remarks, it is perhaps worth adding that it is not just the advertising industry which plays such a crucial role, it is the whole set of mass media industries.)

This leads us right into some deep issues which I've been trying mince around so far in this diary, precisely because of their bottomless depth. It's hard to say just a little bit about these issues, but let me try.

There's a feeling of inexorability to the current economic system. Corporations feel obliged to maximize their short-run profits and keep their stock prices high, almost as if this were a law of physics. People keep trying to earn more money, buy more stuff. Any thought of changing this system seems laughably impractical. Even if we needed to change the system to prevent a mass extinction of species, or the melting of the polar caps, we'd have trouble believing it possible. One might as well try to talk a falling rock out of its course.

Neoclassical economics, with its utility-maximizing rational agents, offers a nice story to explain why things must work this way... or why they should work this way - and would, if we could only get rid of those annoying "market inefficiences". But, the world didn't always work this way - and it still doesn't, if you look carefully.

Especially in an affluent society, the job of maximizing our utility is just one side of the story. An equally important and difficult job is determining our utility function - or in less tortured language, figuring out what we want. When we are starving and cold, this is not so hard. But it gets harder and harder as we become more wealthy and mere survival ceases to be such a big issue. We wind up flailing around, searching for meaning, or happiness, or at least a good time, or... something!

Indeed, for many of us, this problem is so intractable that we latch on to whatever plausible goals and desires are on offer - at least some of the time, anyway. Corporations are eager to define happiness for us: if you buy our product, you will be happy. And we are eager to accept these definitions, or at least give them a try. But of course, when we try to buy happiness, it costs money.

Working hard to make money so we can buy more things - this has a plausible ring to it if we're trying to figure out what will make us happy. It's concrete and fairly well-defined. It may not seem very noble, but in our culture that makes it seem all the more "natural". Almost as if it were a law of nature: everyone wants more, no matter how much they have. The fact that this doesn't make us more happy past a certain point - we're actually quite willing to turn a blind eye to this. After all, life becomes very complicated when we try to figure out what really makes us happy: it's a slippery, endlessly elusive question!

And so, there's a sense in which the rigid rules of neoclassical economics do a very good job of saving us from chaos, by structuring our lives and our society, and by making our behavior as homo economicus seem sensible and natural. But there's a huge price to pay for this.


February 27, 2005

By coincidence, the day after writing the above stuff about economics and our slippery sense of identity, I bumped into a interesting article about the neurobiology of consumer decisions:

Let me quote a bit:
Children are exposed to 40,000 commercials every year. By the age of 18 months, they can recognize logos. By 10, they have memorized 300 to 400 brands, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. The average adult can recognize thousands.

"We are embedded in an enormous sea of cultural messages, the neural influences of which we poorly understand," said neuroscientist Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "We don't understand the way in which messages can gain control over our behavior."

That is starting to change. By monitoring brain activity directly, researchers are discovering the unexpected ways in which the brain makes up its mind.

Many seemingly rational decisions are reflexive snap judgments, shaped by networks of neurons acting in concert. These orchestras of cells are surprisingly malleable, readily responding to the influence of experience.

Moreover, researchers suspect that the inescapable influence of marketing does more than change minds. It may alter the brain.

Just as practicing the piano or learning to read can physically alter areas of the cerebral cortex, the intense, repetitive stimulation of marketing might shape susceptible brain circuits involved in decision-making.

These inquiries into consumer behavior harness techniques pioneered for medical diagnosis: positron emission tomography, which measures the brain's chemical activity; magneto-encephalography, which measures the brain's magnetic fields; and functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures blood flow around working neurons.

"This is a way of prying open the box and seeing what is inside," said psychologist Jonathan Cohen, director of Princeton University's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind & Behavior.

Inside the Caltech scanner, faces flashed before the subject's eyes.

Each one was famous — an easily recognized emblem of celebrity marketed as heavily as any designer label.

Each triggered a response in the volunteer's brain, recorded by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp with Caltech's $2.5-million functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) and then weighed against the volunteer's responses to a 14-page questionnaire.

Uma Thurman. Cool.

Barbra Streisand. Uncool.

Justin Timberlake. Uncool.

Al Pacino. Cool.

Patrick Swayze. Very uncool.

The volunteer's brain cells became a focus group.

In his mind's eye, the celebrities triggered many of the same circuits as images of shoes, cars, chairs, wristwatches, sunglasses, handbags and water bottles.

For all their differences, objects and celebrity faces were reduced to a common denominator: a spasm of synapses in a part of the cortex called Brodmann's area 10, a region associated with a sense of identity and social image.

"On first pass, there might seem to be nothing in common between cool sunglasses, cool dishwashers and cool people," Asp said. "But there is something that these brains are recognizing — some common dimension."

None of these neural responses come consciously to mind when a shopper is browsing brand labels.

Much of what was traditionally considered the product of logic and deliberation is actually driven by primitive brain systems responsible for emotional responses — automatic processes that evolved to manage conflicts between sex, hunger, thirst and the other elemental appetites of survival.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that regions such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus are dynamic switchboards that blend memory, emotions and biochemical triggers. These interconnected neurons shape the ways that fear, panic, exhilaration and social pressure influence the choices people make.

As researchers have learned to map the anatomy of behavior, they realized that the brain — a 3-pound constellation of relationships between billions of cells, shaped by the interplay of genes and environment — is more malleable than anyone had guessed.

Lattices of neurons are linked by pathways forged, then continually revised, by experience. So intimate is this feedback that there is no way to separate the brain's neural structure from the influence of the world that surrounds it.

In that sense, some people may indeed be born to shop; but others may be molded into consumers.

"We think there are branded brains," Asp said.

The Caltech experiment, funded with a $1-million grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, seemed to detect a part of the brain susceptible to such influences.

After analyzing test data from 21 men and women, Quartz and Asp discovered that consumer products triggered distinctive brain patterns that allowed them to classify people in broad psychological categories.

At one extreme were people whose brains responded intensely to "cool" products and celebrities with bursts of activity in Brodmann's area 10 — but reacted not at all to the "uncool" displays.

The scientists dubbed these people "cool fools," likely to be impulsive or compulsive shoppers.

At the other extreme were people whose brains reacted only to the unstylish items, a pattern that fits well with people who tend to be anxious, apprehensive or neurotic, Quartz said.

The reaction in both sets of brains was intense. The brains reflexively sought to fulfill desires or avoid humiliation.

Asp, a Swedish researcher who once majored in industrial design, volunteered for the fMRI probe. The scanner revealed a personality quite at odds with her own sense of self.

She searched the scanner's images for the excited neurons in her prefrontal cortex that would reflect her enthusiasm for Prada and other high-fashion goods. Instead, the scanner detected the agitation in brain areas associated with anxiety and pain, suggesting she found it embarrassing to be seen in something insufficiently stylish.

It was fear, not admiration, that motivated her fashion sense.

"I thought I would be a cool fool," she said. "I was very uncool."
Unfortunately but inevitably, the people most interested in this research are... advertisers! Quartz and his Caltech colleagues have been negotiating with a marketing company called Lieberman Research Worldwide to sell brain-scanning services to advertisers.

For much more, check out the reading material for Steve Quartz's course on the Neural Foundations of Social Science!


March 12, 2005

Here's an interesting article on Richard Thaler's work on "behavioral economics":

Thaler studies how actual human behavior differs from the "rational" behavior posited in classical economics, and has thought about how taking this into account can help us design better economics policies. He's written a couple of books on it: Both are reprint collections, and the latter is more technical. More stuff to read! I'm going to the library right now.


April 14, 2005

This is drifting from economics into sociology and psychology, but it's way too interesting not to include:

Let me quote some:

Psycho-physiology is an important part of this research. It's something that Bob Levenson brought to the search initially, and then I got trained in psycho-physiology as well. And the reason we're interested in what was happening in the body is that there's an intimate connection between what's happening to the autonomic nervous system and what happening in the brain, and how well people can take in information - how well they can just process information - for example, just being able to listen to your partner - that is much harder when your heart rate is above the intrinsic rate of the heart, which is around a hundred to a hundred and five beats a minute for most people with a healthy heart.

At that point we know, from Loren Rowling's work, that people start secreting adrenalin, and then they get into a state of diffuse physiological arousal (or DPA), so their heart is beating faster, it's contracting harder, the arteries start getting constricted, blood is drawn away from the periphery into the trunk, the blood supply shuts down to the gut and the kidney, and all kinds of other things are happening - people are sweating, and things are happening in the brain that create a tunnel vision, one in which they perceive everything as a threat and they react as if they have been put in great danger by this conversation.

All of which are really great conditions for running away from a predator, or fighting aggressively to protect the tribe. And survival. So when you have less blood in the periphery you create what Malcolm Gladwell calls a bloodless armor that lets you strike without really bleeding too much, or run away without hurting yourself too much. But in the context of a discussion with somebody you love clearly this DPA is not very functional. And we found in fact that physiological arousal is one of the best predictors of what happens to that relationship. That's why it predicts.

And men and women are somewhat different, not a lot, but enough, which is another fascinating puzzle, because we find that if the woman is driving the husband's heart rate, that predicts the dissolution of the relationship - and not the other way around. Now why should that be? Why should it be that DPA, the general physiological arousal of men is a worse indicator of the fate of a heterosexual relationship than that of the woman? Unless she's been abused, physically or sexually, when the arousal of both of them is a really good indicator.

Because men are different. Men have a lot of trouble when they reach a state of vigilance, when they think there's real danger, they have a lot of trouble calming down. and there's probably an evolutionary history to that. Because it functioned very well for our hominid ancestors, anthropologists think, for men to stay physiologically aroused and vigilant, in cooperative hunting and protecting the tribe, which was a role that males had very early in our evolutionary history. Whereas women had the opposite sort of role, in terms of survival of the species, those women reproduced more effectively who had the milk-let-down reflex, which only happens when oxytocin is secreted in the brain, it only happens when women - as any woman knows who's been breast-feeding, you have to be able to calm down and relax. But oxytocin is also the hormone of affiliation. So women have developed this sort of social order, caring for one another, helping one another, and affiliating, that also allows them to really calm down and have the milk let-down reflex. And so - it's one of nature's jokes. Women can calm down, men can't; they stay aroused and vigilant.

So it's a real challenge, now that relationships, in the last couple of centuries, have started becoming important in terms of affection and nurturance and support - and we're having fathers come back into the equation in a big way in baby's life. Physiology becomes really critical in this whole thing. A provocative finding from Alyson Shapiro's recent dissertation is that if we take a look at how a couple argues when the woman is in the sixth month of pregnancy, we can predict over half the variation in the baby, the three-month-old baby's vagal tone, which is the ability of the vagus nerve, the major nerve of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for establishing calm and focusing attention. That vagus nerve in the baby is eventually going to be working well if the parents, during pregnancy, are fighting with each other constructively. That takes us into fetal development, a whole new realm of inquiry.

And if they're not, if they're fighting destructively, that fetus, that baby is on a different longitudinal course - its neurological development is already handicapped - from the time it's born. The fetal development is really affecting the function of this vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve. Now this destructive process that happens to two thirds of all couples can be reversed, just in a 10-hour workshop the parents take in the last trimester of pregnancy. One of the things that's very interesting is that with psychological interventions you can change neurological growth and development, and emotional growth and development in the baby. This makes for more empathetic children - and more empathetic infants as well. Daniel Siegel is beginning to help us understand how this happens, how to integrate attachment theory, relationship science and brain neurophysiology and growth. It's a rich and exciting new field, what Jaak Panksepp calls this "affective neuroscience."

We find that there are differences between men and women and the way you to study these differences is independent of sexual orientation. You have to study gay and Lesbian couples who are committed to each other as well as heterosexual couples who are committed to each other, and try and match things as much as you can, like how long they've been together, and the quality of their relationship. And we've done that, and we find that there are two gender differences that really hold up.

One is that if a man presents an issue, to either a man he's in love with or a woman he's in love with, the man is angrier presenting the issue. And we find that when a woman receives an issue, either from a woman she loves or a man she loves, she is much more sad than a man would be receiving that same issue. It's about anger and sadness. Why? Remember, Bowlby taught us that attachment and loss and grief are part of the same system. So women are finely tuned to attaching and connecting and to sadness and loss and grief, while men are attuned to defend, stay vigilant, attack, to anger. My friend Levenson did an acoustic startle study (that's where you shoot of a blank pistol behind someone's head when they least expect it). Men had a bigger heart rate reactivity and took longer to recover, which we would expect, but what even more interesting is that when you asked people what they were feeling, women were scared and men were angry.


April 22, 2005

It's weird how when you get interested in something, all of a sudden you keep seeing it all over the place. Here's another interesting article about work on "neuroeconomics":

It's about attempts to use studies of the human brain to help figure out what people actually do when making decisions. This is obviously sensible - at least part of a bigger multi-pronged strategy to understand human behavior and use our understanding of it to improve our lot. However, we can count on fairly slimy marketers and politicians to take a lot of interest in this research and be among the first to apply it. All the more reason to avoid watching TV!

Here are more detailed papers on this subject that you can get online:

George Loewenstein has lots of other interesting papers that you can download from his website.


May 22, 2005

I deliberately avoid getting involved in the "culture wars" and "war on terrorism" that are tearing up the United States right now. So, I won't comment on the Terry Schiavo euthanasia case, or Bill Frist's attempt to eliminate filibusters of controversial judicial nominees, or the controversy of Newsweek's reports about a Koran flushed down a toilet, or the battle over allowing the Ten Commandments to be posted in courtrooms, or the battle over gay marriage, or the leaked British memo proving that Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq by July 2002....

However, I will say this. I'm glad people are noticing that this crap makes the US a less desirable place to live for many people - especially the creative sorts who play such a big role in our economy:

I think about this whenever promising graduate students from China who want to study at UC Riverside can't get visas to come here, thanks to the tough new attitude of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I think about it whenever some commentator like David Gelernter comes up with a brainy idea like eliminating public education in the United States, or when Max Boot suggests dealing with the shortage of US soldiers by allowing foreigners to gain US citizenship by joining the army. I sometimes get the impression that these guys are downright eager for a dumbed-down, militarized society. (Did Boot read about the fall of the Roman Empire due to the rising power of foreign mercenary soldiers and decide this was a good thing?)

And most of all, I think about it whenever I read the paper and see ideological battles between liberals and conservatives sucking away energy from more important things.


June 8, 2005

Here's an book about how socially responsible firms can survive in competitive environments:

It has an interesting chapter on how students of classical economics become less cooperative than other people!

The Amazon jungle is burning:

Rain Forest Myth Goes Up in Smoke Over the Amazon
By Henry Chu
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

June 8, 2005

REMANSO TALISMA, Brazil - The death of a myth begins with stinging eyes and heaving chests here on the edge of the Amazon rain forest.

Every year, fire envelops the jungle, throwing up inky billows of smoke that blot out the sun. Animals flee. Residents for miles around cry and wheeze, while the weak and unlucky develop serious respiratory problems.

When the burning season strikes, life and health in the Amazon falter, and color drains out of the riotous green landscape as great swaths of majestic trees, creeping vines, delicate bromeliads and hardy ferns are reduced to blackened stubble.

But more than just the land, these annual blazes also lay waste to a cherished notion that has roosted in the popular mind for decades: the idea of the rain forest as the "lungs of the world."

Ever since saving the Amazon became a fashionable cause in the 1980s, championed by Madonna, Sting and other celebrities, the jungle has consistently been likened to an enormous recycling plant that slurps up carbon dioxide and pumps out oxygen for us all to breathe, from Los Angeles to London to Lusaka.

Think again, scientists say.

Far from cleaning up the atmosphere, the Amazon is now a major source for pollution. Rampant burning and deforestation, mostly at the hands of illegal loggers and of ranchers, release hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the skies each year.

Brazil now ranks as one of the world's leading producers of greenhouse gases, thanks in large part to the Amazon, the source for up to two-thirds of the country's emissions.

"It's not the lungs of the world," said Daniel Nepstad, an American ecologist who has studied the Amazon for 20 years. "It's probably burning up more oxygen now than it's producing."

Scientists such as Nepstad prefer to think of the world's largest tropical rain forest as Earth's air conditioner. The region's humidity, they say, is vital in climate regulation and cooling patterns in South America and perhaps as far away as Europe.

The Amazon's role as a source of pollution, not a remover of it, is directly linked to the galloping rate of destruction in the region over the last quarter-century.

The dense and steamy habitat straddles eight countries and is home to up to 20% of the world's fresh water and 30% of its plant and animal species.

Brazil's portion accounts for more than half the entire ecosystem. Official figures show that, on average, 7,500 square miles of rain forest were chopped and burned down in Brazil every year between 1979 and 2004. Over the 25 years, it's as if a forest the size of California had disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Such encroachment on virgin land is theoretically illegal or subject to tough regulation, but the government here lacks the resources some say the will to enforce environmental protection laws.

Loggers are typically the first to punch through, hacking crude roads and harvesting all the precious hardwoods they can find. One gang of woodcutters, in cahoots with crooked environmental-protection officials, cut down nearly $371 million worth of timber from 1990 until it was busted in the biggest sting operation of its kind in Brazil, authorities said last week.

Close on the loggers' heels are big ranchers and farmers, who torch the remaining vegetation to clear the way for cattle and crops such as soy, Brazil's new star export, which is claiming ever larger quantities of land.

Prime burning period in the Amazon runs from July to January, the dry season. In 2004, government satellite images of the forest registered 165,440 "hot spots," fires whose flames can shoot as high as 100 feet and push temperatures beyond 2,500 degrees.

These tremendous blazes spew about 200 million tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere each year, which translates into several times that amount in actual carbon dioxide. In contrast, Brazil's consumption of fossil fuels, the chief source of greenhouse gases worldwide, creates less than half what the fires send up.

During burning season, dark palls of smoke settle over parts of the jungle for days.

"It becomes hard to see, and your eyes have problems. The kids all get sick and have trouble breathing," said Joaquim Borges da Silva, 42, a rural worker who lives in a small encampment here in Remanso Talisma, on the forest's outskirts.

Smoke grew so thick at one point last year that two cars on the road into the camp barreled into each other head-on, killing two people, Borges da Silva said. The fires also kill the game that workers and small settlers rely on for food.

He pointed out a charred tract of land, littered with stumps and felled trees that looked like so many toothpicks, where tractors working 24 hours a day for a month cleared 1,000 acres last year. Trucks rumbled in and out, loaded down with mahogany and cedar.

Farmers subsequently burned the area. Two months later, at the first rain, a small plane swooped in and dropped seeds.

Even with the burning of the rain forest, Brazil's annual output of carbon pollutants is tiny compared with that of the U.S., which produces nearly 6 billion tons.

[ ...much omitted... ]

Researchers are trying to determine what role the Amazon plays in keeping the region cool and relatively moist, which in turn has a hugely beneficial effect on agriculture ironically, the same interests trying to cut down the forest.

The theory goes that the jungle's humidity, as much as water from the ocean, is instrumental in creating rain over both the Amazon River basin and other parts of South America, particularly western and southern Brazil, where much of this country's agricultural production is concentrated.

"If you took away the Amazon, you'd take away half of the rain that falls on Brazil," Moutinho said. "You can imagine the problems that would ensue."

A shift in climate here could cause a ripple effect, disrupting weather patterns in Antarctica, the Eastern U.S. and even Western Europe, some scholars believe.

This is what worries ecologists about the continued destruction of the rain forest: not the supposed effect on the global air supply, but rather on the weather.

"Concern about the environmental aspects of deforestation now is more over climate rather than [carbon emissions] or whether the Amazon is the 'lungs of the world,'" said Paulo Barreto, a researcher with the Amazon Institute of People and Environment.

"For sure, the Amazon is not the lungs of the world," he added. "It never was."


June 15, 2005

The Amazon forests are burning as loggers and agriculture take over. On the bright side, sugar cane plantations in Brazil have largely freed this country from dependence on foreign oil! I don't know how much forest is being torn down to plant sugar cane, but it goes to show how everything in this world is a muddled mix of good and bad.

Homegrown Fuel Supply Helps Brazil Breathe Easy

By Marla Dickerson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

June 15, 2005

SAO PAULO, Brazil - While Americans fume at high gasoline prices, Carolina Rossini is the essence of Brazilian cool at the pump.

Like tens of thousands of her countrymen, she is running her zippy red Fiat on pure ethanol extracted from Brazilian sugar cane. On a recent morning in Brazil's largest city, the clear liquid was selling for less than half the price of gasoline, a sweet deal for the 26-year-old lawyer.

"You save money and you don't pollute as much," said Rossini, who paid about $18 to fill her nearly empty tank. "And it's a good thing that the product is made here."

Three decades after the first oil shock rocked its economy, Brazil has nearly shaken its dependence on foreign oil. More vulnerable than even the United States when the 1973 Middle East oil embargo sent gas prices soaring, Brazil vowed to kick its import habit. Now the country that once relied on outsiders to supply 80% of its crude is projected to be self-sufficient within a few years.

Developing its own oil reserves was crucial to Brazil's long-term strategy. Its domestic petroleum production has increased sevenfold since 1980. But the Western Hemisphere's second-largest economy also has embraced renewable energy with a vengeance.

Today about 40% of all the fuel that Brazilians pump into their vehicles is ethanol, known here as alcohol, compared with about 3% in the United States. No other nation is using ethanol on such a vast scale. The change wasn't easy or cheap. But 30 years later, Brazil is reaping the return on its investment in energy security while the U.S. writes checks for $50-a-barrel foreign oil.

"Brazil showed it can be done, but it takes commitment and leadership," said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. In the U.S. "we're paying the highest prices at the pump since 1981, and we are sending over $100 billion overseas a year to import oil instead of keeping that money in the United States. Clearly Brazil has something to teach us."

Much of Brazil's ethanol usage stems from a government mandate requiring all gasoline to contain 25% alcohol. Vehicles that ran solely on ethanol fell out of favor here in the 1990s because of an alcohol shortage that pushed drivers back to gas-powered cars. But thanks to a new generation of vehicles that can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of those two fuels, more motorists like Rossini are filling up with 100% alcohol again to beat high gas prices.

The exploding popularity of these so-called flex-fuel vehicles is reverberating across Brazil's farming sector. Private investors are channeling billions of dollars into sugar and alcohol production, creating much-needed jobs in the countryside. Environmentalists support the expansion of this clean, renewable fuel that has helped improve air quality in Brazil's cities. Consumers are tickled to have a choice at the filling station.

Officials from other nations are flocking to Brazil to examine its methods. Most will find Brazil's sugar-fuel strategy impossible to replicate. Few countries possess the acreage and climate needed to produce sugar cane in gargantuan quantities, much less the infrastructure to get it to the pump.

Still, some Brazilians said their government's commitment to ditching imports and to jump-starting homegrown energy industries were the real keys to Brazil's success.

"It's a combination of strong public policy and the free market," said Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of a federal energy research agency based in Rio de Janeiro. "That's the Brazilian secret."

Brazil's fortunes have been tied to sugar since the Portuguese conquerors found that their tropical colony boasted ideal conditions for cultivating the tall, grassy plant. Brazilians produce and eat more cane sugar than any people on the planet, so the notion of using it to power their vehicles was a natural. After all, Henry Ford once viewed ethanol, which can be made from corn, barley and other crops, as a strong contender to fuel the Model T.

But the discovery of cheap, abundant petroleum changed everything. Like much of the rest of the world, Brazil guzzled imported crude until the 1970s oil shocks put its economy over a barrel. So totally reliant was Brazil on foreign oil that surging prices wreaked havoc on its balance of trade. That led to massive borrowing, huge deficits and, eventually, hyperinflation and a devaluation of its currency.

Thus the Brazilian government, then a military dictatorship, launched efforts in the mid-1970s to wean the nation off imports. Those efforts included its National Alcohol Program, known as Proalcool.

"To become less dependent was a matter of life and death," said Jose Goldemberg, secretary of the environment for the state of Sao Paulo.

With the help of public subsidies and tax breaks, farmers planted more sugar cane, investors built distilleries to convert the crop to ethanol and automakers designed cars to run on 100% alcohol. The government financed a mammoth distribution network to get the fuel to gas stations and kept alcohol prices low to entice consumers. It worked. By the mid-1980s, virtually all new cars sold in Brazil ran exclusively on ethanol.

But a 1989 shortage coupled with low gas prices soured many on the renewable fuel. Sales of alcohol-only cars tumbled in the 1990s, and the government gradually withdrew its subsidies and lifted price controls on ethanol. Demand stalled.

Some critics at the time chalked it up to the inevitable consequences of government meddling. But today many laud Brazil's Proalcool program for creating a viable domestic market for ethanol, and for spawning an industry with tremendous export potential that now employs more than 1 million Brazilians.

Meanwhile, ethanol remains little more than a boutique fuel in the United States. Although the U.S. is the world's second-largest ethanol maker, producing 3.4 billion gallons last year compared with around 4 billion gallons for Brazil, ethanol's main use is as a gasoline oxygenate to boost air quality rather than as a serious replacement for foreign oil. However, high gas prices have some farm belt legislators pushing Congress to mandate greater use of domestic corn-based ethanol in the nation's fuel supply to reduce oil consumption.

Virtually all cars sold in the U.S. since the early 1980s can run on gasoline containing as much as 10% ethanol. In addition, there are an estimated 5 million flex-fuel vehicles already on U.S. roads that can burn a mixture as high as 85% ethanol. But big logistical and political hurdles remain. Only a few hundred of the nation's approximately 169,000 retail gas stations are equipped to sell so-called E85 fuel. Nationwide distribution would require station owners to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in special tanks and pumps.

Although U.S. ethanol makers say they could easily double their output to meet any increase in demand, experts say that's still a drop in the bucket compared with the tens of billions of gallons that would be needed annually to displace meaningful amounts of oil. The U.S. industry is loath to give up tariffs that protect it from cheaper alcohol from Brazil.

Meanwhile, some environmentalists say feedstock such as grasses and municipal waste offer much more promise than corn. But huge investments in research are needed to get the costs down for this so-called cellulosic ethanol.

What most can agree on is that Brazil is an example of what might have been if America had seriously committed itself 30 years ago to renewable energy.

"If we would have spent one-hundredth of the money that we have spent to send tanks around the world to protect our oil supplies we would already be using cellulosic ethanol," said Michael Bryan, chief executive of BBI International, a Colorado-based bio-fuels consulting company.

Although public support was crucial in getting Brazil's program up and running, the private sector is now driving growth with flex-fuel cars.

At Volkswagen's sprawling Anchieta plant near Sao Paulo, the gleaming Fox and Polo models inching down the assembly line look just like regular cars. The only immediate clue that they are revolutionizing the Brazilian auto market is the TotalFlex logos on their back windshields.

The company was the first to unveil dual-fuel vehicles in Brazil in March 2003. The technology has proven to be such a hit with consumers that in a little more than two years the company has shifted nearly 90% of its domestic production to flex-fuel capability.

"It was a big bang in the market," Volkswagen spokeswoman Junia Nogueira de Sa said.

Equipped with a single fuel system, these vehicles employ sensors that allow the engine to adjust to gasoline and alcohol in any combination. Flex-fuel vehicles don't cost any more than regular gasoline-powered models. The only visible difference under the hood is a tiny auxiliary fuel tank that holds a bit of gasoline to aid starting on cold days, a common problem with the old alcohol-only models.

Today, a half dozen carmakers, including General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., offer dual-fuel versions of their vehicles in Brazil, and more are on the way. Consumers bought around 48,000 of the vehicles the first year they were available in 2003, representing about 4% of total car sales. That figure quickly jumped to 328,000 cars, or 22% of the total volume, in 2004, and last month nearly half of the new cars sold were flex vehicles. Analysts predict that dual-fuel technology will easily dominate the market within a few years.

Cars aren't the only things being powered by ethanol in Brazil. Small planes such as crop-dusters are converting to alcohol. And Brazil's electrical grid, which experienced a severe shortage in 2001 because of a drought in its vital hydroelectric sector, is getting a charge from sugar.

In contrast to U.S. corn-based ethanol, which requires substantial amounts of fossil fuel to plant, harvest and distill, Brazil's industry uses crushed sugar cane stalks known as bagasse to feed the steam boilers that power its mills and distilleries. The process is environmentally friendly and so efficient that these centers are generating more energy than they can use. Ethanol producers are supplying Brazil's grid with more than 600 megawatts of electricity. The near-term potential is at least 10 times that.

[more stuff....]

There are also complicated issues involving subsidies for the sugar industries in Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere:


June 16, 2005

The big reason the United States is doing so badly on environmental issues is that the Bush administration is in bed with polluting industries - in a truly shameless, egregious way.

You may have read how Bush hired Philip Cooney, a lobbyist from the American Petroleum Institute, to be the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

And you may have read how Cooney doctored scientific reports to downplay the effects of global warming:

You can see more examples here and here:

You may also have read how Cooney suddenly resigned when this was discovered - for "completely unrelated" reasons, of course: "He has accumulated many weeks of leave, and so he decided to resign and take the summer off to spend some time with his family", according to presidential spokeswoman Erin Healy, who thinks we're a pack of idiots.

And now, what has Cooney done while spending time with his family? He's started to work for Exxon Mobil!

The main reason we know about Cooney's dirty tricks is that earlier this spring, Richard Piltz resigned in disgust from the U. S. Climate Change Science Program - and sent out a memo explaining why. He explained how the Bush administration has systematically suppressed the findings of the National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. In particular, he explained how Cooney changed a document to "create an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty about climate change and its implications".

And what were the findings of the National Assessment? Read them here:

Here's yet another example of how Exxon is subverting US environmental policy with the help of the Bush administration:
Revealed: How Oil Giant Influenced Bush
White House sought advice from Exxon on Kyoto stance

By John Vidal
Environment Editor for The Guardian

June 8, 2005

President's George Bush's decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world's most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian.

The documents, which emerged as Tony Blair visited the White House for discussions on climate change before next month's G8 meeting, reinforce widely-held suspicions of how close the company is to the administration and its role in helping to formulate US policy.

In briefing papers given before meetings to the US under-secretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, between 2001 and 2004, the administration is found thanking Exxon executives for the company's "active involvement" in helping to determine climate change policy, and also seeking its advice on what climate change policies the company might find acceptable.

Other papers suggest that Ms Dobriansky should sound out Exxon executives and other anti-Kyoto business groups on potential alternatives to Kyoto.

Until now Exxon has publicly maintained that it had no involvement in the US government's rejection of Kyoto. But the documents, obtained by Greenpeace under US freedom of information legislation, suggest this is not the case.

"Potus [president of the United States] rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you [the Global Climate Coalition]," says one briefing note before Ms Dobriansky's meeting with the GCC, the main anti-Kyoto US industry group, which was dominated by Exxon.

The papers further state that the White House considered Exxon "among the companies most actively and prominently opposed to binding approaches [like Kyoto] to cut greenhouse gas emissions".

But in evidence to the UK House of Lords science and technology committee in 2003, Exxon's head of public affairs, Nick Thomas, said: "I think we can say categorically we have not campaigned with the United States government or any other government to take any sort of position over Kyoto."

Exxon, officially the US's most valuable company valued at $379bn earlier this year, is seen in the papers to share the White House's unwavering scepticism of international efforts to address climate change.

The documents, which reflect unanimity between the company and the US administration on the need for more global warming science and the unacceptable costs of Kyoto, state that Exxon believes that joining Kyoto "would be unjustifiably drastic and premature".


June 19, 2005

Speaking of Exxon - I ran into a great series of articles in the magazine Mother Jones on how Exxon Mobil has been raising doubts about global warming by paying fake "experts" to question its existence. While nobody outside the United States takes this crap seriously, American public discourse has been seriously distorted by it. Check it out!

If you don't have much time, just look at the above chart. For more, try these:

Using this information, you can see how Exxon is bankrolling bogus "experts" like these:

       

Click on the photos to see what these guys are saying. Then see how much Exxon is paying them to say it.


June 20, 2005

A bit more about the three rascals shown above. If we want to understand how economic forces run the world, one thing we need to think about is people like these:

These are just a few of the people paid by Exxon Mobil to confuse the American public on the issue of global warming. It would be interesting to know in more detail how this game works.


June 22, 2005

Summer's here, and it's hot - about 96 in Riverside today, they say. That's actually nothing much for around here, but it's been a cool wet year so far, so it comes as a bit of a shock. With lots of plant growth earlier in the spring, I'm mainly worried about when the autumn, when things dry out and we get fires. If it doesn't get too hot and windy, we may not have a repeat of the 2003 fires.

Anyway - while hot, it's very beautiful and peaceful in my garden next to the hills. The baby hawks are practicing gliding.

This diary has been pretty downbeat so far, as I become aware in more and more detail of what I'd already known: a feedback loop of economic forces is pushing us down the road to disaster. But, the universe has passed through many crises before - look at the Permian extinction, for example!

So, to me the question is not whether we'll make it through this, but how. In what style? Surprisingly well, or severely damaged?

I use the term "we" in the broadest sense here, from paramecia to people to cyborgs... we're all in it together.

Here's a hopeful vision by a true visionary:

Sterling argues that:
If we handle the huge transition correctly, it will be worth cheering. In 50 years, nature will be less oppressed, culture will be wiser, government will take new and improved forms, industrial systems will be more efficient and capable, and business will be less like a rigged casino. Purveyors of art, fashion, and design will see what went on nowadays and bust a gut laughing in derision. Our children and grandchildren will get up in the morning, look at the news, and instead of flinching in terror, they will see the edifying spectacle of the world's brightest people transparently solving the world's worst problems. This sounds utopian, but it could soon be everyday life.

To achieve this victory, we need to understand technology with a depth of maturity that humans have never shown before. We tend to obsess over newfangled discoveries: the radio age, the space age, the atomic age, the computer age. We need to stop fussing over these tiny decades-long "ages" and think historically and comprehensively, employing technology as a means to preserve the web of life rather than for its own sake. The Iroquois considered the impacts of their decisions on seven generations, and so can we.

As for "bust a gut laughing" we don't need to wait 50 years for that. But anyway, Sterling says that over the long timeline he's imagining, there are only 3 technologies worth our attention - none of which has been invented. He writes:
  1. The first and most sensible technology is one that does its work and then eventually rots and goes away by itself. Its core materials and processes are biodegradable, so it's self-recycling. Writer Janine Benyus talks about "biomimetic" technologies; architect William McDonough describes "cradle to cradle" production systems. This means harnessing the same biochemical means of production that built the natural world and using them to create industries, cities, products, everything. It means the industrial use of new materials with the sturdy, no-nonsense qualities of spider silk, mussel glue, coral, seashell, horn, bone, and timber. It means room-temperature industrial assembly without toxics: no foundries, no pesticides, no mercury. When an object made by these processes is abandoned or worn out, it becomes part of the biosphere.
  2. The second kind of technology is monumental. These are artifacts built to outlast the ages artifacts with the honest, solid design demanded by, say, craftsman William Morris and art critic John Ruskin. In theory, monuments reduce the human load on the environment because they are "consumed" only over many generations.
  3. Then there's the third kind of decent technology, a cybernetic industrial base. Imagine a fully documented, trackable, searchable system in which the computer revolution has permeated manufacturing, inventorying, and transporting. Every manufactured object is bar-coded, scanned, and tracked throughout its lifetime. Consider a Dell computer: It doesn't even exist until you place your order, setting in motion a tightly controlled manufacturing and delivery process. (On a smaller scale, I can keep track of my writing„material stored on my hard disk using a Google search. Eventually I hope to be able to Google my misplaced car keys.) While this sounds like Big Brother, when it comes to managing the resources that go into industrial processes, such hyper-control creates great economic and environmental efficiency. Imagine a whirring technology that would keep full track of all its moving parts and, when its time inevitably came, recycle itself.
I most of all agree that we need the first sort of technology. There's a low-tech road to this: use existing sustainable farming practices to create recyclable products with minimum damage to the environment. And there's a high-tech road, which Sterling is imagining: use biotechnology and nanotechnology to figure out how to grow whatever we want.

I'm sure the high-tech road is possible. Heck, we already have tomatoes that contain a vaccine against SARS, and scientists have figured out how to hack the genetic code in E. Coli to allow genes that code for an amino acid that's not one of the usual twenty. These innovations are just the tip of an enormous iceberg. The question is how to go down this "high road" in a reasonably safe way.

I would add " ...and whether we even should try", but I figure that's inevitable - I want to be practical here. A bunch of environmentalists seem too eager to clutch to a glorious past that we can never get back to - if it was ever really there. I have little use for "the ancient future", except as a delightful romantic vision. I'm glad the Sierra Club isn't too hidebound to let Sterling ponder the high-tech road in their magazine!

They also have a nice feature on inventors who are doing good things:

And while you're at it, check out Stewart Brand's article on "environmental heresies" - To whet your interest, I'll give you the first sentence:
Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbanization, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.


July 5, 2005

The air is thick with smoke and occasional bits of ash as the fire season begins here in Southern California. There are big fires in Yucaipa and Chino tonight. There weren't so many last year, but the year before it was even worse... though later in the year: it could still get a lot worse than it is now, this year, since heavy rains created a lot of plant growth. It reminds me a bit about the burning of the Amazon rainforest, though it's very different: it's very arid here.

David Corfield emailed me an interesting link on the maximum power usage in a sustainable economy:

As of 1998 the world used an average of 2 kilowatts per person. This was divided very unevenly, of course: people in the US used 13 kilowatts on average. Most sustainable power sources are ultimately derived from solar power, so MacKay does some rough but interesting calculations to see whether we could sustain this sort of power usage on solar power alone. Some conclusions:

Of course, even the latter more realistic alternative would require a mind-boggling change in our habits - lots of solar panels, and energy conservation in the power-hogging USA.

MacKay's site lists all sorts of caveats which might invalidate or at least modify his conclusions, but I think the basic point is an absolutely vital one: we're on an unsustainable course and will eventually be forced to change our habits in unpleasant ways if we don't do it more gracefully starting sooner.

I'm about to hog some power of my own: I'm flying to Sydney tomorrow, and then Canberra, and later Beijing. Then I'll wander around China and come back on August 16th. This diary will probably remain dormant until then, unless I find some time at a nice internet cafe. See ya! When I get back, I hope to have something to say about life in China.


July 29, 2005

Beijing is a huge city, mostly rather ugly, but dynamic and expanding, with a construction project on every block. On Tuesday I wandered around the ramshackle residential neighborhoods in the old downtown, especially a bunch directly north of Liulichang, a street where they sell inkstones, brushes, scrolls and jade.

These old neighborhoods are called "hutongs". They looked like slums to me, but I was assured they're not. The real slums are on the outskirts of town, outside the fifth ring road. The land these hutongs occupy is valuable and centrally located! The houses don't have private toilets, but there are public toilets ever few blocks. The buildings date to Ching or even Ming times; they're falling apart and ugly, not romantically old-fashioned as I had foolishly hoped. But, they're kept reasonably clean and lots of people grow vines in front. There are also lots of little hole-in-the-wall eateries which remind me of the less posh parts of Hong Kong: old folks sit there playing Chinese chess or chatting....

Some of the hutongs are getting torn down to make way for towering apartment complexes, but others are getting gentrified. Either way, they seem to be on their way out. So, I took a lot of pictures, some of which will eventually appear on my website.

My travel partner (Lisa Raphals) told me this is a civilization on its way up, bursting with energy, growing... while America is in decline. There's definitely some truth to this. People don't work as late here as they do in Hong Kong, where lots of little businesses stay open until midnight. But there's construction going on at all hours. People who come back to Beijing after a few years have trouble finding their way around anymore. Even the taxi drivers don't seem to know their way around that well. (Two tries to take a taxi to the Wudaokou stop on Line 13 both failed miserably. On the other hand, it turned out to be pretty hard to reach this stop by car.)

Unlike Hong Kong, there are lots of beggars here, at least in the more tourist-infested parts of town. Among the beggars are some scary-looking cripples, including a girl whose feet seem to have rotted away. I'm told these people are all run by Uighur gangs.

I also occasionally see families of a husband, wife and child begging for money, apparently down on their luck, but in a rather dramatically staged way that made me a bit suspicious the second or third time I saw them. The man, usually wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an outfit that brand him as a white-collar worker, bows in shame while holding his child, whose head lolls back as if ill. The wife sits motionless beside them, also bowed in shame. Their story is written out neatly on a piece of paper on the pavement in front of them. Some people stop to read it; most walk by. I don't give them any money - it could be a scam - but I feel pretty guilty about this. I do give some money to a blind fellow I see two days in a row playing an erhu in the subway.

(An erhu is a two-stringed Chinese fiddle.)

However, far more widespread than begging is hawking: if you walk past any store in the touristy part of town, you'll instantly have someone come out and try to lure you in. Some of this is quite annoying, some merely charming, but it's all impressively determined. In the US this sort of initiative is only found in TV ads, junk mail and spam.

I expected to see lots of bicycles, but while most major roads have bike lanes or even separate bike roads parallelling them, the bike traffic was less intense than the cars. People are buying lots of cars, pushing up the price of oil worldwide, polluting the city, and doing their bit to help global warming. There are also lots of new drivers, which might help excuse the terrifying tendency for cars to weave back and forth between lanes, jockeying for advantage and cutting off other drivers. Pedestrians routinely jaywalk across major multi-lane roads packed with cars moving at 40 miles per hour: it's almost necessary, because there aren't enough stoplights. I've heard there are lots of accidents, but I haven't actually seen any. I haven't even been run over myself, yet.

I still need to write about an interesting book that Leon Kuunders gave me... but here are two other book recommendations I just got.

Atte Marko Saarela from Finland writes:

If you're interested in the relation between psychology and politics, you might want to read a book called "What's the Matter with Kansas", which is about why so many people with middle and low income vote Republican against their own best interest.
Sean Donovan Downes, a physics major at the University of Hawaii, writes:
I've been a reader of your site (math & physics) for a while, and have recently turned to your economics pages. Specifically

"See how Exxon is bankrolling 40 public policy groups and bogus 'experts' like these:"

Almost immediately after reading Mr. Ebell's bio, I was reminded of a book that came out not more than a year ago: "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins. It was a pretty good read, and I learned a bit more than I expected to from it. Have you seen it? If not, I recommend it. I picked it up at Borders.

Aloha,
Sean


August 10, 2005

After visiting Beijing I spent 8 days in Chengdu, the capital of the province of Sichuan - better known to American fans of Chinese food as "Szechuan". Since my knowledge of Chinese geography was deplorably vague until this trip, I won't assume yours is any better! Sichuan is in the southwest of China, bordering Tibet, and Chengdu is a standard stop for tourists going to Tibet - which is a kind of restricted zone, since the Chinese government doesn't like Westerners who support the "free Tibet" policies of the Dalai Lama.

Chengdu itself is thoroughly Chinese, and more charming and relaxed than Beijing. It's hot and humid during the summer - downright steamy! - and it's packed with teahouses where people while away the hours playing mah jong. The downtown has some quite comfortable neighborhoods; poverty sets in as you enter the surrounding countryside. But when you go up into the misty mountains of northern or western Sichuan, you find lots of Tibetan communities, complete with yaks and compounds of houses bunched together and surrounded by prayer flags.

I took a tour of Huang Long and Jiu Zhai Go, two surreally beautiful parks in the north of Sichuan, and got a tiny little glimpse of this world. Check out my photos! Huang Long is famous for its terraced pools made out of travertine (calcium carbonate deposited by the water) - sort of an open-air cave. Jiu Zhai Go is famous for lakes with incredibly blue waters - perhaps the result of dissolved copper compounds? Near the parks everything was jam-packed with tourists, but almost all of them Chinese: I only saw about 5 whites there besides myself and my travel partner. So, while I experienced nothing at all like a "traditional Tibetan lifestyle", I did experience a traditional "Chinese-tourist-gawking-at-ethnic-minorities" lifestyle, which was almost as exotic to me, though less romantic.

The evening of local entertainment provided by the tour was somewhere between amusing and sad: some truly virtuosic singing and musicianship featuring some circular breathing, some updated versions of traditional dances - and some truly silly stuff, like 12 sexy maidens shimmying their hips while suggestively pumping butter churns to a feverish techno beat. In short, something for everyone.

It was all done in a spirit of good fun, and the locals even got their symbolic revenge by staging tug-of-war contests between male audience members at the end of the show, in which the top prize was to get married to one of the sexy maidens! The poor winner had to kiss her and carry her off stage... all in fun, of course. But, it reminded me of how subjugated peoples everywhere wind up eking out an existence by entertaining the conquerors with their quaint local customs. It's a kind of trivialized existence, sort of like a once-proud lion pacing back and forth in a cage. Alas, there's no turning back the hands of time, so I suppose one can only hope the Tibetans learn to ride the tide of change. In California the native Americans now make lots of money running casinos... though I'm not sure how much of this money the average folks living on the reservations ever wind up seeing.

There was an enlightening little argument between the tour guide (a very nice Tibetan guy) and a member of the tour who said that the Chinese needed a firm presence in Tibet because there was a lot of crime in Lhasa. (Yeah, right.) Later the tour guide said he was not at all in favor of Tibetan independence - a hopeless cause and a mess of trouble. Instead, he favored learning to work within the system.

I was also amused by how the international language of rap and techno featured in these touristic dance performances. Now that Tibetan variety shows for tourists in the backwoods of Sichuan play rap music, how can anyone consider this stuff "cutting-edge" or "rebellious" in the United States? I guess all that matters is that there are still plenty of Americans who hate it.

Anyway, I left Chengdu on Monday the 8th. Now I'm in Shenzhen, a busy boom town in the "special economic zone" in Guangdong Province, on the coast right next to Hong Kong. Free enterprise runs rampant here! It's not at all like charming old Chengdu, but it's getting nicer, I think, as people set up parks and other nice things. Certainly it's nowhere near as scary or seedy as the Lonely Planet guide makes it out to be. Maybe their writer never left the tourist zone near the railway station, or maybe it's just gotten better since the 1996 edition was written. I took a long walk through a big park one night and saw old folks walking around and kids playing after dark. In a big US city everyone would be too scared for this.

A lot of people in Shenzhen live in so-called "villages". These are big tall apartment complexes right in the thick of the city, but they have their own shops, restaurants, swimming pools, ping pong tables, little parks, and so on - and some even show free movies! It's a clever way to bring some of the charms of a village (or hutong) to modern urban life. I'm staying in a hotel that's attached to one of these villages - apparently residents can rent a room when they have visitors.

Why don't Americans set up living arrangements like these? Too individualistic?

Right now my travel partner and her grad student are shopping for clothes while I write this from the comfort of a huge, dim "web bar", lit by futuristic blue-glowing metal arches and traditional Chinese lanterns. You can use a computer in a private room here for only 8 yuan per hour (1 dollar per hour), but I'm using the bare-bones basic option which costs even less - just 5 yuan per hour.

I've seen no sign of the supposed Chinese crackdown on internet cafes, though you do have to show them your identity card (or passport, in my case). At first I thought Google was being censored, because I got a lot of other sites to work but not this one. What a pain! But now it's working. So, while I hear a lot of websites are blocked by the Chinese government, I haven't yet come across one.

Let's see if I can get the Amnesty International website... hmm, no. But it's hard to know what this means: yesterday I couldn't get the math/physics archive at http://www.arxiv.org, but I could get it at http://xxx.lanl.gov. Erratic censorship or just flaky internet connections?


August 19, 2005

Back from China, I'm still recovering from jetlag. My mom called and recommended this book:


August 20, 2005

Still recovering from jetlag - I'm waking up at 5 am these days, which isn't natural for me.

Out of the blue I feel like talking about the coming revolution in biotechnology. This will go much further than most people realize. Pretty soon, we won't just be tinkering with the DNA of existing creatures, modifying it a little here or there. We'll be creating completely new creatures and even new genetic codes.

This is called "synthetic biology". The First International Meeting on Synthetic Biology was held in the summer of 2004, with talks like "Rewiring cell signaling pathways", "Programming cells and synthetic gene networks", and "Biological property rights".

But in fact, Thomas Knight has been teaching classes on synthetic biology for several years - back at my old grad school, MIT. The kids in these classes use a toolkit of standardized parts called Biobricks to build new biological systems. It's sort of like building electrical circuits from resistors, capacitors, and transistors. They do this for fun during the Independent Activities Period - a kind of free-for-all that takes place each January between semesters.

Check out some of their projects! You'll see stuff like:

The objective of the project is to design a bacteria that when cultured will produce a recognisable polka dot pattern in the culturing medium. Our design attempts to achieve this by hijacking the quorum sensing mechanism employed by bacteria such as Vibrio fischeri and more particularly in our case Pseudomonas aeruginosa used to regulate group behaviour. We are attempting to use the las/rhl quorum sensing system used by the latter, in conjunction with a heat trigger to cause small clumps of bacteria to turn on the LacZ colour expression gene and hopefully get a small selection of polka dots in a tasteful display of purple.

Some people will find this amusing. Some will find it exciting. Some will find it terrifying. I mainly just wish more people knew this kind of stuff is going on!

A while back I mentioned that scientists figured out how to expand the genetic code to create a new codon in E. coli bacteria. If you don't know what that means, you won't realize how far-out it is. The "letters" in DNA are grouped in "words" of 3 letters each, called codons. Each codon is like a word saying to insert a specific amino acid into a protein. A gene is a "sentence" built from these words, which describes a specific sequence of amino acids that get strung together to form a protein molecule. Since there are four letters - A, T, C, and G - there are potentially 43 = 64 codons. However, a bunch of different codons stand for the the same amino acids, and some potential codons don't get used at all. So in fact, most of the organisms on Earth only create 20 different amino acids. This leaves room for expansion - and scientists have created a new codon that lets Escherichia coli create an amino acid that's not one of the usual twenty.

In an even more radical move, some other scientists have introduced new "letters" into the genetic code - that is, new base pairs besides the familiar A (adenine), T (thymine), C (cytosine) and G (guanine)!

When I read this, it reminded me of Greg Egan's scary story "The Moat" in his book Axiomatic, where some radical secessionists genetically engineer themselves to have different base pairs and then... introduce a virus that kills off the rest of us? But, the original experiment came two years before Egan's tale:

You can find a nice review of this and other work here:

Where will all this lead? Start imagining it now. Then read my October 27th entry.


August 22, 2005

I'm teaching a minicourse on gauge theory and homotopy theory up in Calgary, and I bumped into an interesting article on the flight up yesterday. It's about Islamic economics, and it's by the author of this book:

Here's the article:

Money, Morals and Islam

By Timur Kuran

Los Angeles Times

August 21, 2005

Mistrust among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds is only partly to blame for last week's delay in drafting a new Iraqi constitution. Tangled up in the tension between sects and ethnicities is a fundamental ideological conflict between secularists and Islamists. To understand the constitutional battles, observers must grasp not only the principles of Islamic law, or Sharia, but also Islamic economics an esoteric modern doctrine that would befuddle Karl Marx, Adam Smith and even the Muslim jurists who, a millennium ago, developed the principles on which it claims to be based.

Secularist Iraqis believe that Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's Dawa Party, Iraq's largest and best-organized Shiite Islamist organization, aims to establish a theocracy in which Islam serves as an overriding, supra-constitutional source of authority. Overwhelmingly Arab, it leads the United Iraqi Alliance - the "clerics' coalition" that captured a majority of the seats in the post-Hussein National Assembly. Growing out of a diffuse movement of opposition to secularist forces - the British in the 1920s, Arab nationalism and international communism from the 1930s onward - it was formally founded in 1957 under the spiritual leadership of the late Mohammed Baqir Sadr, whose opinions remain a source of authority.

Until his fall in 2003, Saddam Hussein persecuted Dawa as a conspiracy bent on dragging Iraq back to the Middle Ages. His dictatorship is said to have killed hundreds of thousands of Dawa adherents. Yet it has never been clear what policies Dawa would pursue if it achieved power. Its leaders agree that Iraq should be governed under Islamic law, yet they are of many minds on what Islamization would actually entail.

Sadr's intellectual legacy has facilitated the present ideological diversity. In his writings, Sadr laid out a vision, developed ideals and made sweeping predictions about the benefits of Islamization. He did not provide a blueprint for action, order priorities or grapple with the tactical aspects of social transformation.

Nevertheless, Shiite Islamists still consider him their leading authority on economic matters and the most gifted founder of "Islamic economics," a school of thought that aims to restructure the economy according to Islamic teachings. Among Sunni Islamists, his reputation as an economic scholar remains limited because Sunni-dominated Islamic research centers in Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere habitually ignore his works. Still, among today's Islamist intellectuals, including Sunnis, Sadr's economic works are viewed as the clearest expression of why an "Islamic economy" would outperform its alternatives. His ideas are often reiterated, though in the case of Sunni Islamists usually without attribution.

Sadr's economic vision is developed in "Our Economics", his masterwork published in 1961. The purpose of "Our Economics" is to discredit both capitalism and socialism as flawed and alien systems, offer Islamic economics as a vastly superior alternative and demonstrate that Islam harbors solutions to a panoply of vexing economic problems. In both capitalism and socialism he finds virtues. Islamic economics, he says, embodies all of these virtues while escaping their numerous vices.

An ideally operating Islamic economy would find a golden mean between personal rights and collective responsibility. Islam shares, Sadr says, the socialist goal of providing decent material opportunities to one and all. The difference is that it pursues this goal without trampling on basic freedoms or crushing individual creativity. In an Islamic economy, the state does not control every facet of an individual's economic life. By the same token, it helps to limit inequalities rooted in selfishness and greed.

How is the golden mean to be reached? It will easily be found, Sadr claims, in a society infused with Islamic morality. In such a society, selfish and acquisitive impulses would be tamed, and the typical person would pursue material gain only within internalized limits imposed by Islamic ethics. This moral reconstruction would enable socialist egalitarianism to coexist with liberties characteristic of capitalism.

Most Islamic economists expect their readers to accept such thinking essentially on faith. Sadr aimed to convince broader audiences, including Muslims predisposed to think in categories rooted in secular ideologies. Inviting his readers to consider the challenge of preventing alcohol consumption, he observes that the United States failed at prohibition in spite of enormous efforts at enforcement. The fundamental reason, he claims, is that prohibition conflicts with a key capitalist tenet, the legitimacy of satisfying individual wants. An Islamic economic system would overcome alcohol consumption by liberating the individual from the preference for alcohol. The state would play merely a supportive role, and insofar as it resorted to compulsion, its policies would succeed by virtue of their harmony with the dominant ethos of society.

Personal restraint grounded in Islamic morality is Sadr's answer to diverse social issues. Take poverty elimination, which a socialist society pursues through mandatory wealth transfers. Islam exhorts its adherents to assist the disadvantaged, and it teaches those of means to participate in a decentralized transfer system called zakat. In Sadr's Islamic economy, the poor are fed and clothed largely through the voluntary zakat payments of believers seeking to draw closer to God. By the same logic, in this ideal economy every worker earns a decent wage because Islamic morality restrains employers from treating their workers unjustly. The state's role in wage determination is limited to corrective measures. Inequalities that a capitalist state tolerates as the outcome of an invisible hand and a socialist state tries to lessen through an iron hand are limited through the guiding hand of God, working through both Islamic norms and leaders steeped in Islamic doctrine.

Like practically every other modern Islamist, Sadr considers interest illegal, in the belief that the Koran bans it categorically, regardless of form, purpose or magnitude. At the same time, he repeatedly praises the market mechanism, arguing that the pressures of supply and demand should be respected, not resisted. "Our Economics" seeks to overcome the contradiction through moral training aimed at removing wants liable to produce un-Islamic outcomes. If Islamic education makes people equate interest with unearned income, demand for interest income will disappear; hence, there will be no interest-based lending. People will lend to consumers suffering cash-flow problems without expecting a return. And they will lend to businesses on the basis of "profit and loss sharing" by accepting not a fixed return but, rather, a portion of any profit from the financed venture in return for part of any loss. By this logic, an Islamic economy may remain interest-free while respecting the market freedoms associated with capitalism.

Sadr's economic agenda could not be put to the test in Baath-ruled Iraq. But similar agendas have been pursued elsewhere, most notably in Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan has prohibited interest, but its people have continued to give and take interest, usually disguised as a "bank fee," "financial commission" or "service charge." Voluntary zakat donations have been minimal. A government-run zakat system that requires the wealthy to contribute essentially at the rates of 7th century Arabia has failed to dent either poverty or inequality. In Iran, likewise, interest remains common, and there is no evidence of a reduction in poverty attributable to some distinctly Islamic policy.

In neither country have attempts at economic Islamization alleviated economic conflict measurably. Employers and employees have continued to differ over the morally just wage, and neither side has had trouble justifying its positions in Islamic terms. Likewise, clerics passing judgment on economic conflicts have disagreed among themselves. Instituting Islamic economic rules has thus proved to be anything but a mechanical process. Well-meaning interpreters of Islam, or of Islamic economics in particular, have encountered vast zones of moral ambiguity.

Such disappointments have led many Islamists to conclude that a properly Islamic economy cannot be attained without first improving the moral fiber of the average Muslim. Ambitious plans have been quietly shelved.

The Pakistani and Iranian experiments have shown that Sadr was right to treat the creation of "Islamic man" as a prerequisite for the ideal Islamic economy. These experiments also point, however, to the virtual impossibility of accomplishing a Sadrist moral transformation. If the moral fiber of Pakistanis and Iranians has not improved, as judged by Islamist leaders themselves, this is not for lack of trying.

For all the lip service Dawa's current leaders pay to Sadr's wisdom, they have given no indication of how they would succeed where others have failed. They have not elucidated what his teachings imply for wage policy or assistance to the downtrodden, to say nothing of policies on oil, the environment or foreign trade. Curiously, the Islamists among Iraq's constitutional framers are drawing moral and intellectual authority from a man whose thinking is of no practical help in resolving Iraq's vast policy challenges. The significance of Sadr's intellectual legacy lies, then, less in the particularities of its policy proposals than in the justification that it provides for giving the Dawa leadership a voice in Iraqi governance, including economic policy-making.

Notwithstanding Dawa's claim to provide a revolutionary economic agenda, as a matter of practice, Sadr's legacy serves two political goals. First, it provides a manifesto for placing a clerical seat at Iraq's national bargaining table. And second, it serves as a rhetorical device with mass resonance. At a time when most Arabs consider Islam under siege, a policy can be tainted merely by making it seem un-Islamic. A proposal categorized as un-Islamic will fail no matter how sound the utilitarian arguments in its favor.

Accordingly, secularist anxiety about Dawa goes well beyond the substance of its current policy positions. In the rough-and-tumble of Arab politics, Islamist parties will enjoy an advantage in any national debate by virtue of their ability to frame their own position, whatever its content, as uniquely Islamic and rival positions as evil.

The Sadr mentioned here, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, was repeatedly tortured and eventually executed in 1980 by the regime of Saddam Hussein. His brother, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was a prominent Shiite cleric in Iraq, and was killed by Saddam's Hussein's regime in 1999. His brother's son, Muqtada al-Sadr, is the firebrand who has been making headlines since the US invaded Iraq.

For more on Islamic economics try these:

I find it interesting, because since the collapse of the USSR and the conversion of China to a form of capitalism, Islamic economics may be the main challenge to capitalism as practiced in the US and Europe.

The very interesting Grameen Bank is popular in some Muslim countries but is not a form of Islamic banking, and indeed has incurred a boycott by Islamic fundamentalists who object to the bank's focus on improving the status of women.


August 29, 2005

Now I'm in Montreal visiting Lisa's mother, her brother Philip, his wife Shelley, and his charming, sweet but slightly spoiled five-year-old son Victor. Philip Raphals is the executive director of the the Helios Centre, a nonprofit green energy research group which provides expert help to various clients and publishes a free online news bulletin (in French). I should ask Phil a lot of questions about energy policy in Canada, but so far our conversations have mainly revolved around Victor, who is going to school for the first time starting this week, and just learned to tie his shoes.

In response to my June 22nd entry, Allan Erskine sent me the following email:

Seeing as you are now talking about the "good guys" in your economics diary, I thought you might be interested in this place:

The CEO, Richard Sandor, "father of futures" and founder of the world's first interest rate derivatives markets at the Chicago Board of Trade, just gave a very interesting talk where I work (a large hedge fund).

His premise was that if you enact the right structural changes, in this case restricting the shared "resource" of being allowed to pollute, and design the right contracts to encourage liquidity, you can potentially grow very sizable markets in a short space of time.

Using the existing SO2 market growth as an example, and assuming protocols such as Kyoto are successfully backed with appropriate regulatory changes (which he and others are lobbying for), he claimed that a trillion dollar carbon emissions market by 2012 would not be an unreasonable projection, with a derivatives market of between 6-20 times the size of this (based on existing sizes of derivatives markets in relation to underlying markets).

He also claimed to have a couple more "tricks up this old man's sleeve" re indexes on everything - from indexes on sustainable development (he helped design this: http://www.sustainability-index.com) to futures trading in biodiversity (! nothing concrete as yet, but check the wee logo on the Chicago Climate Exchange homepage).

Fresh water is also one of the big future commodities apparently - not sure what I thought about this one.....!!

So could this heavyweight capitalist really be one of the good guys? For: he wore shiny blue puma pumps, and talked of lecturing stoned canines while at Berkeley. Against: his smile is a lot like Jack Nicholson's in Witches of Eastwick.

If you are interested in judging for yourself, I could send a link to his talk (.wmv)

Apologies as ever for emitting into your doubtless polluted inbox.

Allan

P.S. - one more thing: unlike normal resources, Sandor stressed that part of the point of "anti-resources" such as emissions caps is to "use them up" (e.g. through competition from innovative technologies) as quickly as possible! And then move onto creating markets in the next big "anti-resource"....


August 31, 2005

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans the day before yesterday. As I watch the waters of Lake Pontchartrain slowly engulf New Orleans, I'm wondering why none of the news reports mention this big two-word phrase: global warming.

Of course we can never point to a single tropical storm and say it was caused by a change in climate. But, warmer ocean temperatures cause increased ocean evaporation, which causes bigger and more frequent tropical storms. Recently a professor at MIT published a paper in Nature giving evidence that the destructiveness of tropical storms has roughly doubled over the last thirty years, thanks to global warming, and that this trend would continue:

There's definitely been a greater-than-average number of hurricanes in the Atlantic in recent years. Even sensible people - not just the ignorable sock puppets of ExxonMobil - can argue about how much of this is due to global warming. But we should at least be discussing this issue. Have you seen the TV news on hurricane Katrina even mention it? I haven't. But maybe that's just the US news?

Of course, if we're into root causes, we could also ask why most of New Orleans is below sea level, below the level of the Mississippi River and the nearby Lake Pontchartrain. It's protected from flooding only by a system of levees and pumps... which has now failed. A disaster like the one happening now had been long foreseen. In June of this year, a TV miniseries even envisioned a category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans that forced residents to evacuate and hide out in the Superdome, destroying refineries, and ultimately leading to a national economic collapse due to decreased oil supply. But how did New Orleans get below sea level in the first place?

As far as I can tell, the basic story goes something like this:

The French settled the low-lying swamps of New Orleans because they were perfectly located for a port: as far up the Mississippi as you could sail against the flow of the Mississippi. Over time, people gradually built levees to protect the city whenever this river overflowed its banks, as it regularly did.

But this had an unintended consequence. The Mississippi is a muddy river that keeps flooding its banks and changing its course, like the Yellow River in China. When the Mississippi floods, it spreads silt that raises the level of the soil! When levees were built, this natural process was stopped, and the soft muddy ground began to subside. The sinking process accelerated around 1910 when people began pumping water out of the ground to drain the city. In the 1920s, the Army Corps of Engineers built a much more comprehensive system of levees to protect the city against flooding. This completely prevented new silt from raising the level of the soil.

The city now averages 8 feet below sea level, with a subsidence rate to 3 feet per century. Meanwhile, global warming raised the sea level about 1 foot in the last century and somewhere between 1 and 20 feet in the next (estimates vary wildly). As if this weren't enough, surrounding wetlands that protect New Orleans against storm surges have been decimated by development, oil and gas drilling, and erosion.

Now the city is sunk.


September 1, 2005

My friend the philosopher David Corfield writes:

Hi -

There is linkage of Katrina and global warming in the UK media. Rather worrying if it's not happening in the US. It ought to be the kind of event to spur some changes. The pictures of hordes of SUVs leaving the area, while impoverished blacks get left behind, doesn't present a great image.

Re your piece on Islamic economics, the comment

The Pakistani and Iranian experiments have shown that Sadr was right to treat the creation of "Islamic man" as a prerequisite for the ideal Islamic economy. These experiments also point, however, to the virtual impossibility of accomplishing a Sadrist moral transformation. If the moral fiber of Pakistanis and Iranians has not improved, as judged by Islamist leaders themselves, this is not for lack of trying.

suggests that solutions can't come from the nation state. Working up from smaller social communities might prove a better route, as argued by my favourite opponent of modern liberalism, Alasdair MacIntyre.

It's interesting to see Islamic thinkers studying MacIntyre, e.g., this review:

Best, David

Here's my reply, which I polished up a bit before posting here:
Hi -
>There is linkage of Katrina and global warming in the UK media.
Good.
>Rather worrying if it's not happening in the US.
Yes - I've seen not a single word, except one paragraph in a small article I found somewhere on the web. There's been a huge suppression of the idea of global warming in the US, thanks in large part to Exxon and its paid-for flunkies (e.g. most of the Bush administration).
>It ought to be the kind of event to spur some changes. 
I'm mostly curious as to whether they plan to rebuild New Orleans in the same place, below sea level - if they're that dumb, how can they possibly deal with a gradually growing problem like global warming?
>The pictures of hordes of SUVs leaving the area, while
>impoverished blacks get left behind, doesn't present a great image.
Right now, the evacuation of the Superdome has been suspended due to shots being fired at the helicopters. I can imagine how that will play on the world stage! Baghdad comes to New Orleans!

(New Orleans is the city with the highest murder rate in the US, and Louisiana is famous for its political corruption, so everything will play out worse than one would naively expect.)

>It's interesting to see Islamic thinkers studying MacIntyre, 
>e.g., this review [...]
I still hope some real good will come of Islam's presence as a counterweight to the Western system - or what you call "liberalism", which means something very different to MacIntyre than it does in contemporary US politics. Like it or not, it's one of the few forces with enough adherents to keep the world from becoming a kind of monoculture. Right now the West only sees the worst side of Islam: fundamentalist jihad. There are a lot of better aspects - one can see a few on the website you found that review on: Like many people, I'd been hoping for a kind of "reformation" in Iran which would lead to an Islamic but non-fundamentalist state; it seems to have stalled, but it could still happen. These things take a long time.

I'm reading a fascinating book on Andalusia, which sheds some light on these issues:

I want to learn more about Andalusian artists, scientists and writers!

Best,
jb

PS - I think I'll stick this into my diary, hence the slightly pompous tone of certain sentences.


September 2, 2005

Here are some articles and editorials about Katrina and global warming:

David King is the British government's chief scientific advisor.

Of course, past a certain point, it doesn't make sense to argue about whether a single given event was caused by an effect which might raise the probability of such an event. But, a single event is marvellously able to focus the attention.


September 3, 2005

My former grad student Miguel Carrión Álvarez wrote the following about Andalusia:

Hello,

I just read the latest entries in your economics blog. A little book I found very instructive is:

Curiously, most of the best historians of Spain are British, and this is a good example. I also suggest this novel: On a related note, Spaniards naturally prefer to highlight the examples of religious tolerance in the Christian realms, not in moorish Andalusia, and so we are most familiar with Toledo at the time of Alfonso X. Unfortunately, Spain was declared a "crusade" shortly thereafter, and that was that.

Regards,
Miguel

Besides this book I mentioned on September 1st:

there are a lot of other books on Moorish culture that might be fun. I'm especially interested in the transmission of classical Greek science through Muslim culture to Europe. People like to allude to this, but my curiosity about it got piqued by attending a big conference on the history of science in Beijing this summer, and you can read more details in "week221" of This Week's Finds.

My last big historical kick was studying the Silk Route and cities in the Taklamakan Desert, like Kashgar, Khotan, and Turfan. I admit that my studies of history these days are partially motivated by romantic reasons. I like learning about ancient cities, rich in philosophy, poetry and song, now long gone... destroyed by crusades, wars, or encroaching deserts... but still echoing in the distance for anyone who listens closely.

Anyone who likes that kind of stuff should read this:


September 4, 2005

Montreal is a fascinating city. While less beautiful, it somewhat resembles Paris in its coziness. We're staying in Outremont, which I guess is considered a fairly nice area. But what I like is not any special poshness but the way there are lots of apartments and townhouses on calm, tree-lined streets, with little grocery stores ("dépanneurs") on the corner and cafes, restaurants, bakeries ("boulangeries") and greengrocers ("epiceries") on the bigger streets.

This setup means that you meet a lot of your neighbors as you walk to the store, cafe or restaurant. Also, you can easily shop daily for fresh fruits, vegetables and baguettes instead of shopping weekly for flavorless foodstuffs that have been designed to have long shelflives.

I read that 12% of US workers belong to unions, about 30% of Canadian workers, and about 40% of workers in Quebec. This too seems French. And they probably pay a similar price in higher unemployment.

William Woods writes:

On the hurricane / global warming controversy, Kenneth Chang of the New York Times writes:
Because hurricanes form over warm ocean water, it is easy to assume that the recent rise in their number and ferocity is because of global warming.

But that is not the case, scientists say. Instead, the severity of hurricane seasons changes with cycles of temperatures of several decades in the Atlantic Ocean. The recent onslaught "is very much natural," said William M. Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who issues forecasts for the hurricane season.

Gray seems to be the go-to guy for predictions of hurricane-season severity.

Michael Bustillo of the Los Angeles Times writes:

Is the rash of powerful Atlantic storms in recent years a symptom of global warming?

Although most mainstream hurricane scientists are skeptical of any connection between global warming and heightened storm activity, the growing intensity of hurricanes and the frequency of large storms are leading some to rethink long-held views.

Most hurricane scientists maintain that linking global warming to more-frequent severe storms, such as Hurricane Katrina, is premature, at best.

Though warmer sea-surface temperatures caused by climate change theoretically could boost the frequency and potency of hurricanes, scientists say the 150-year record of Atlantic storms shows ample precedent for recent events.

A paper by William Gray and Philip Klotzbach includes these remarks:

The 1995-2005 Upswing in Atlantic Hurricanes and Global Warming

Many individuals have queried whether the unprecedented landfall of four destructive hurricanes in a seven-week period during August-September 2004 and the landfall of two more major hurricanes in the early part of the 2005 season is related in any way to human-induced climate changes. There is no evidence that this is the case. If global warming were the cause of the increase in United States hurricane landfalls in 2004 and 2005 and the overall increase in Atlantic basin major hurricane activity of the past eleven years (1995-2005), one would expect to see an increase in tropical cyclone activity in the other storm basins as well (ie., West Pacific, East Pacific, Indian Ocean, etc.). This has not occurred. When tropical cyclones worldwide are summed, there has actually been a slight decrease since 1995. In addition, it has been well-documented that the measured global warming during the 25-year period of 1970-1994 was accompanied by a downturn in Atlantic basin major hurricane activity over what was experienced during the 1930s through the 1960s.

We attribute the heightened Atlantic major hurricane activity between 1995-2005 to be a consequence of the multidecadal fluctuations in the Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation (THC) as we have been discussing in our Atlantic basin seasonal hurricane forecasts for several years. Major hurricane activity in the Atlantic has been shown to undergo marked multidecadal fluctuations that are directly related to North Atlantic sea surface temperature anomalies. When the Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation is running strong, the central Atlantic equatorial trough (ITCZ) becomes stronger. The stronger the Atlantic equatorial trough becomes, the more favorable are conditions for the development of major hurricanes in the central Atlantic. Since 1995, the THC has been flowing more strongly, and there has been a concomitant increase in major hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic.

Also see the FAQ put out by the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory entitled What may happen with tropical cyclone activity due to global warming?
So, it seems some scientists don't think global warming is contributing to the (well-documented) increase in Atlantic hurricanes. The Los Angeles Times article mentioned above is worth reading in its entirety for a sense of the controversy:

Storm Turns Focus to Global Warming

By Miguel Bustillo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 30, 2005

Is the rash of powerful Atlantic storms in recent years a symptom of global warming?

Although most mainstream hurricane scientists are skeptical of any connection between global warming and heightened storm activity, the growing intensity of hurricanes and the frequency of large storms are leading some to rethink long-held views.

Most hurricane scientists maintain that linking global warming to more-frequent severe storms, such as Hurricane Katrina, is premature, at best.

Though warmer sea-surface temperatures caused by climate change theoretically could boost the frequency and potency of hurricanes, scientists say the 150-year record of Atlantic storms shows ample precedent for recent events.

But a paper published last month in the journal Nature by meteorologist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is part of an emerging body of research challenging the prevailing view.

It concluded that the destructive power of hurricanes had increased 50% over the last half a century, and that a rise in surface temperatures linked to global warming was at least partly responsible.

"I was one of those skeptics myself a year ago," Emanuel said Monday.

But after examining data on hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific, he said, "I was startled to see this upward trend" in duration and top wind speeds.

"People are beginning to seriously wonder whether there is a [global warming] signal there. I think you are going to see a lot more of a focus on this in coming years."

Hurricane activity in the Atlantic has been higher than normal in nine of the last 11 years, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This month, the agency raised its already-high hurricane forecast for this year to 18 to 21 tropical storms, including as many as 11 that would become hurricanes and five to seven that would reach major-hurricane status. That could make 2005 one of the most violent hurricane seasons ever recorded. A typical storm year in the Atlantic results in six hurricanes.

But the agency believes that the increase in hurricanes is most likely the result of a confluence of cyclical ocean and atmospheric conditions that tend to produce heightened tropical storms every 20 to 30 years. If global warming is playing any role in the hurricanes, it is a minor one, the federal agency maintains.

Computer models have shown for years that rising sea-surface temperatures resulting from global warming could create more ideal conditions for hurricanes.

Yet before Emanuel's research there were few indications that hurricanes had become stronger or more frequent, despite well-documented increases in surface temperatures.

Moreover, skeptical hurricane scientists were quick to point out that worldwide weather records were too inadequate for a thorough examination of such trends. They said that would require an analysis of storm activity going back hundreds if not thousands of years.

"There is absolutely no empirical evidence. The people who have a bias in favor of the argument that humans are making the globe warmer will push any data that suggests that humans are making hurricanes worse, but it just isn't so," said William Gray, a Colorado State University meteorologist who is considered one of the fathers of modern tropical cyclone science and who sharply questions Emanuel's conclusions.

"A lot of my colleagues who have been around a long time are very skeptical of this idea that global warming is leading to more frequent or intense storms," Gray said. "In the Atlantic, there has been a change recently, sure. But if you go back to the 1930s, you see a lot of storms again. These are natural cycles, not related to changes in global temperature. I can't say there is no human signal there, but it's minute."

Nonetheless, some scientists have maintained that the rise in mean global temperatures over the last half a century a well-documented trend widely linked to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels will inevitably have an effect on storms, if it hasn't already.

"It's the ocean temperatures and sea-surface temperatures that provide the fuel for hurricanes," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who recently published a paper in the journal Science contending that climate change could cause hurricanes to produce more rain and thereby become more dangerous.

"It's the big guys, the more intense storms, that have been increasing," Trenberth said. Hurricane scientists have been "unduly influenced by what has been happening in their corner of the world in the Atlantic. But if you look more broadly, at what has been happening in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, there is a clear trend."

Such views remain controversial among veteran hurricane scientists.

Chris Landsea, a hurricane expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, withdrew this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international scientific group that periodically sums up the consensus on global warming. Landsea said in a letter to scientific colleagues that he resigned because he strongly disagreed with public statements made by Trenberth, who was also part of the panel, suggesting that last year's Atlantic hurricanes were linked to global warming.

Despite the dispute among scientists, the prospect of stronger hurricanes has alarmed some insurance companies, which are concerned that disaster losses could increase in years to come.

Munich Re, the world's largest insurer of insurance companies, said that global warming was at least partly responsible for a rise in worldwide insurance losses over the last 50 years, including $114.5 billion in losses last year, the second-highest total ever.

Critics, including Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado science professor, have attributed the losses to a simpler cause: more people living in harm's way in areas such as Florida and Louisiana.

Still, some experts believe that hurricane scientists will have to consider climate change more seriously if the streak of Atlantic storms persists.

Christopher Landsea is the author of the tropic cyclone FAQ pointed out above by William Woods. So, as we dig into the question of whether global warming is causing an increase in hurricanes, we see a heated debate in which certain names keep popping up: for example, Christopher Landsea, William Gray, Kerry Emanuel, Kevin Trenbreth and Roger Pielke. In fact, Kerry Emanuel and Roger Pielke wrote a joint letter to the editor correcting a Fortune magazine article on this subject.

To go further we'd need to carefully study their papers....


September 13, 2005

The Sierra Club has launched a campaign called Exxpose Exxon, which seems like a good thing to me, for obvious reasons. Check out this report:

The cover picture is outdated - gasoline is about $3 per gallon now, not a measly $2.25 - but the facts are worth knowing.


September 23, 2005

More books are coming out on "peak oil" - how oil production will start dropping soon, and what the effects of this will be, combined with the rapidly rising oil consumption in China and elsewhere. I read hunks of this book in the local Borders bookstore while grocery shopping last weekend. It's fascinating in a way, but it seems unbalanced in its alarmism, so I don't recommend it:

Yes, oil production may peak anytime between now and 2040. Yes, oil prices gradually spiralling upwards to infinity will drastically affect our economy. I don't even mind calling this an emergency! Yes, we use oil not just for fuel but also to make the fertilizer essential to modern commercial agriculture. Yes, it's perfectly suited to making the plastic we use for everything - though we burn two-thirds of it.

But: will civilization really collapse to the point where we see subsistence farming - little farms for each household - in what were once the suburbs of major American cities? That's what Kunstler contemplates. Somehow this scenario seems to assume no resourcefulness in our response to this challenge.

For power, there will be coal and uranium for many more years to come. Yes, these both have nasty side-effects - and many people who have studied these issues think coal is worse: more deaths per kilowatt, not even counting global warming and acid rain. But, we can count on people doing whatever they can to preserve some semblance of the status quo, and then deal - half-heartedly, a bit too late - with the nasty sideffects.

So, my fear is not that people will roll over and give up our current lifestyles as oil starts running out. My fear - or hope, it's hard to know - is that they won't. I think people in the US and China would rather drive a car powered by a fuel cell powered by a dirty coal-powered electric plant than no car at all. Global warming? We'll probably just suffer through it. The environment? It'll keep getting worse.

Who knows: maybe I'm a deluded optimist. Maybe Kunstler is closer to the mark.

But I think the problem is that he has just one bee in his bonnet - one trend on his mind. He ignores a pile of other trends that will combine to make the future more complicated and interesting than we can imagine. For example, he seems to ignore the exponential growth of computers, nanotechnology, genetic modification, and other mind-boggling technologies. Another futurist, focusing on these trends and not very interested in "peak oil", would project a very different future. In fact, one has:

To quote a bit:
An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The "returns," such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.
Wow! One guy's future has beleagured people growing corn in their backyards a century from now, while another's has ultra-high levels of intelligence expanding outwards at the speed of light. I guess why it's called the future: because we don't know what's going on there yet.

I think we should at the very least imagine a messy blend of these two scenarios. You can probably get the idea by reading some good cyberpunk fiction.


September 26, 2005

Here's another book on "peak oil":

Deffeys predicts the maximum of oil production will come very soon, perhaps even this Thanksgiving, and certainly in less than 5 years. I have no idea if this is true, but he's an emeritus professor of geosciences at Princeton, so maybe he knows something. Check out the links on his web page!


September 30, 2005

People outside the US, and perhaps even most Americans, may not realize what lies behind the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Three powers have formed an unholy alliance: corporate lobbyists, the federal government and the Republican party. This is what I was complaining about in my very first entry in this diary... but I scarcely knew the extent of it all. The Republicans increasingly run "K Street" - slang for the gang of corporate lobbyists in the US capital, since that's the street where most of them have their offices. In return, they do the bidding of big corporations. It's all very systematic and deliberate. And, the person chosen to replace Tom Delay now that he has stepped down - namely, Roy Blunt - is the person DeLay chose to run this operation!

To quote today's Los Angeles Times:

The revolution in corporate behavior began with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, when DeLay was among the most outspoken of several GOP leaders demanding that business groups support the party - not only by contributing to Republican campaigns but by helping GOP leaders round up voters and selecting party faithful to run trade associations.

When the National Assn. of Securities Dealers hired a former Clinton administration official, John Hilley, as a vice president in 1998, DeLay told the industry publication Traders Magazine that the hiring was a "very big mistake."

"For an organization to hire a highly partisan Democrat gives me great concern, because I won't deal with such organizations," he said. (Hilley stayed and was later promoted.)

Now, prominent Republicans head some of the city's most influential trade groups: Former Michigan Gov. John Engler leads the National Assn. of Manufacturers, and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a friend of President Bush, runs the Financial Services Forum. Marc Racicot, a former Montana governor who was once chairman of the Republican National Committee, leads the American Insurance Assn.

Lobbyists who have their offices in the glass-and-steel buildings that line K Street say that DeLay's effort has had real impact.

Many of the Republicans who have taken lobbying and trade association jobs recently owe their positions to GOP benefactors in Congress. About two dozen former DeLay staffers work as lobbyists. In these jobs, they often have access to funds they can use as donations to campaigns and conservative causes. The corporate world also supplies contacts in congressional districts that can help Republican candidates with grass-roots campaigns.

The Bush administration has sought to take advantage of these ties in building unified support for judicial nominees, the president's Social Security proposal and, more recently, immigration overhaul - issues that in the past did not draw much trade association activity. DeLay and other GOP leaders used business contacts to push for passage in 2003 of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was a priority of the pharmaceutical industry.

Before Republicans won control of the executive and legislative branches in 2000, Washington lobbying had been studiously bipartisan. Contributions from many industry groups were close to evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

But DeLay and his allies had been working several years to change that. To keep pressure on businesses to shift toward the GOP, DeLay and his allies in 1995 compiled a list of the 300 or so largest business-affiliated political action committees, along with a breakdown of their campaign donations by party. Lobbyists were told their ranking, and DeLay pressed those low on the list to give more to Republicans. Over time, contribution patterns changed.

The accounting profession, for example, gave more than half of its campaign donations to Democrats in 1994. So far this year, 71% has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization. The insurance industry increased the share of donations to Republicans from 55% to 68% in the past decade. Energy interests increased the share going to Republicans from 64% in 1994 to 75% a decade later.

To monitor business hiring in Washington, DeLay and conservative activist Grover Norquist launched the "K Street Project," which tracks K Street jobs and who fills them.

Norquist assigns a full-time staffer to keep up with hiring changes, which are then posted on a website. This week, for example, the site says that a liquor manufacturer has tapped a new corporate affairs chief who has made contributions to Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). A separate item reports that a Washington lobbying firm has promoted an executive who had donated to the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign fund.

Norquist said House and Senate GOP leaders consulted the database to review hiring decisions by K Street firms.

So, the difference between corporate lobbyists and the Republican party has been thoroughly eroded, while remaining technically legal for the most part. DeLay pushed his luck a little too far, and broke one law too many. But the system he built will not fall with him.


October 27, 2005

I've been too busy helping my grad students Derek and Jeff work on their theses, and going with them to Loops '05 (a quantum gravity conference near Berlin) to keep up this diary. Sorry! But here's something my grad student Mike Stay brought to my attention.

On August 20th I gave a little intro to synthetic biology: the art of drastically modifying organisms. When this becomes cheap, the economic consequences could equal those of the computer revolution. But it won't stop there... people will make brand new life forms.

In fact, they're already trying!

Briefly: Norman Packard is a guy who helped start The Prediction Company, which seeks to make money on financial markets using complex systems theory, based on the idea that the market is not in equilibrium and never gets close. Here's a book about that: I'm not sure how well this venture is doing - the retrospective above doesn't sound too happy, and the Prediction Company's website doesn't include any media coverage from after 1999!

(After I posted this, I got an email from Packard saying his company was doing fine.)

But anyway, now Packard has founded a company called ProtoLife, which is trying to create a new living organism from scratch. He's working with Steen Rasmussen of Los Alamos National Laboratory, who in October 2004 got a big grant to develop an organism called the Los Alamos Bug. The idea is to keep everything as simple as possible. Here are a few key features:

You may be skeptical. That's probably wise. As Pier Luigi Luisi notes in the New Scientist article, "It's certainly interesting from the conceptual point of view. But nature with nucleic acids and enzymes is so much smarter, because these are products that have been optimised over billions of years of evolution. To pretend to do life with simple chemistry is a nice ambitious idea, but it's probably not going to be very efficient."

However, even if this idea doesn't work, and even if ProtoLife goes belly-up in a few years, I bet something will work. In fact, I bet lots of things will work. The New Scientist article also talks about some other teams pursuing other approaches:


December 11, 2005

Who is better at making predictions: experts in politics or economics, or dart-throwing monkeys?

Well, when I put it like that, you can probably predict the answer... but you can read the gory details here:

or for a short version, you can read this review online: Here's a quote that gives the basic idea:

"Expert Political Judgment" is not a work of media criticism. Tetlock is a psychologist - he teaches at Berkeley - and his conclusions are based on a long-term study that he began twenty years ago. He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends," and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Would Canada disintegrate? (Many experts believed that it would, on the ground that Quebec would succeed in seceding.) And so on. By the end of the study, in 2003, the experts had made 82,361 forecasts. Tetlock also asked questions designed to determine how they reached their judgments, how they reacted when their predictions proved to be wrong, how they evaluated new information that did not support their views, and how they assessed the probability that rival theories and predictions were accurate.

Tetlock got a statistical handle on his task by putting most of the forecasting questions into a "three possible futures" form. The respondents were asked to rate the probability of three alternative outcomes: the persistence of the status quo, more of something (political freedom, economic growth), or less of something (repression, recession). And he measured his experts on two dimensions: how good they were at guessing probabilities (did all the things they said had an x per cent chance of happening happen x per cent of the time?), and how accurate they were at predicting specific outcomes. The results were unimpressive. On the first scale, the experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned an equal probability to all three outcomes - if they had given each possible future a thirty-three-per-cent chance of occurring. Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices.

Tetlock also found that specialists are not significantly more reliable than non-specialists in guessing what is going to happen in the region they study. Knowing a little might make someone a more reliable forecaster, but Tetlock found that knowing a lot can actually make a person less reliable. "We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly," he reports. "In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals - distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on - are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in `reading' emerging situations". And the more famous the forecaster the more overblown the forecasts. "Experts in demand," Tetlock says, "were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight."

People who are not experts in the psychology of expertise are likely (I predict) to find Tetlock's results a surprise and a matter for concern. For psychologists, though, nothing could be less surprising. "Expert Political Judgment" is just one of more than a hundred studies that have pitted experts against statistical or actuarial formulas, and in almost all of those studies the people either do no better than the formulas or do worse. In one study, college counsellors were given information about a group of high-school students and asked to predict their freshman grades in college. The counsellors had access to test scores, grades, the results of personality and vocational tests, and personal statements from the students, whom they were also permitted to interview. Predictions that were produced by a formula using just test scores and grades were more accurate. There are also many studies showing that expertise and experience do not make someone a better reader of the evidence. In one, data from a test used to diagnose brain damage were given to a group of clinical psychologists and their secretaries. The psychologists' diagnoses were no better than the secretaries.

The experts trouble in Tetlock's study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong. Tetlock describes an experiment that he witnessed thirty years ago in a Yale classroom. A rat was put in a T-shaped maze. Food was placed in either the right or the left transept of the T in a random sequence such that, over the long run, the food was on the left sixty per cent of the time and on the right forty per cent. Neither the students nor (needless to say) the rat was told these frequencies. The students were asked to predict on which side of the T the food would appear each time. The rat eventually figured out that the food was on the left side more often than the right, and it therefore nearly always went to the left, scoring roughly sixty per cent, but a passing grade. The students looked for patterns of left-right placement, and ended up scoring only fifty-two per cent, an F. The rat, having no reputation to begin with, was not embarrassed about being wrong two out of every five tries. But Yale students, who do have reputations, searched for a hidden order in the sequence. They couldnt deal with forty-per-cent error, so they ended up with almost fifty-per-cent error.

This shows that the whole political/economic system, even in its most "rationalized" forms, is warped by its reliance on so-called "experts". It would be interesting to see if experts are any better at deciding what to do than at predicting what will happen. Presumably experts can avoid certain elementary mistakes that non-experts make. But, I suspect that they suffer from certain systematic flaws of judgement just as they do in prediction. Anyway, even if it's only prediction that experts are so bad at, it's a big problem.

Maybe someday we can figure out a way to address this - though there will be resistance from "experts" of every stripe. I wonder if Philip Tetlock has ideas? Maybe this is why he's involved in the Social Change Project.


December 16, 2005

Latest news on the global warming front! The National Climatic Data Center just came out with information on the world's temperature from 1880 to 2005:


As you can see, 2005 is the second hottest year on record, second only to 1998. In 1998 there was an El Niño to blame for the heat; this year there was not! The above chart comes from here: based on data from here: What are the effects of this warming? For one thing, NASA has reported that since 1979, the Arctic ice cap has been melting at a rate of 8.5% per decade: You can watch a movie of the Arctic ice melting away!

  

In the summer we can now sail from Alaska all the way to Sweden. The Arctic ice cap may completely disappear sometime between 2050 and the end of the century:

The last article studies the "ice-albedo feedback loop": less ice means the Arctic is less white, so it absorbs more sunlight, which warms the water and melts more ice. The authors write:
The late 1980s and early 1990s could be considered a tipping point during which the ice-ocean system began to enter a new era of thinning ice and increasing summer open water because of positive feedbacks. It remains to see if this era will persist or if a sustained cooling period can reverse the process.


December 18, 2005

There's a fun, slightly fluffy article in Wired magazine about why high oil prices are good for us:

The basic idea is that having oil prices go up sooner, rather than later, gives us more time and more incentive to develop new energy technologies. He describes technologies that might become profitable as fuels for vehicles when the long-term price of oil reaches: Of course hydrogen and electricity aren't sources of energy, just methods of delivering it. You'll notice that all the energy sources listed here contribute to global warming. In terms of the global reserves, the biggest ones on the list are tar sands (the equivalent of 4.3 trillion barrels of oil) and methane hydrates (the equivalent of 72 quadrillion barrels of oil). It would be interesting, and probably scary, to estimate the effects on the global climate of burning all this stuff!

If you've never heard of methane hydrates, read my August 29, 2004 entry on the Permian-Triassic extinction. Briefly, they're a methane-ice mixture that lines the sea floor in northern latitudes. There's huge amounts of this stuff: there's twice as much carbon in this form than in all other fossil fuels on Earth. Occasionally the gas gets released and rises to the atmosphere in a catastrophic "methane burp". Such an event may have caused a mass extinction 55 million years ago.

So, we have to be a wee bit careful when mining methane hydrates. But I'm a lot less worried about causing a methane burp by mining this stuff than the effect of burning it all and causing global warming that goes way beyond what we're seeing now. Such drastic warming could trigger a repeat of the Younger Dryas event, or even - yes - a methane burp!

Solar power, anyone? Nuclear energy? Energy conservation?


December 31, 2005

On Christmas day, Lisa and I went to Arizona with friends. We did a lot of hiking, and returned on New Year's Eve. We learned a lot about the Navajo and Hopi, and learned some lessons about the economic struggles of aboriginal peoples. I wrote a little photo essay about this trip.

On the Hopi tribe website, they write:

The Hopi emerged from the Third World into this current Fourth World. This life is therefore referred to as the Fourth Way of Life for the Hopi. Hopi knew that life in this fourth world would be difficult and that we must learn a way of life from the corn plant.

It's a new year! So, I'll end this year's diary here, and continue in 2006.

For my 2006 diary, go here.


The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On the time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. - Freeman Dyson

© 2005 John Baez
baez@math.removethis.ucr.andthis.edu

home