Archive for February, 2009

Dungen + The Soundtrack of our Lives

February 27, 2009

Last night, I attended a double-concert at USF Verftet in Bergen with the two Swedish bands Dungen and The Soundtrack of my Life. Earlier, I’ve mentioned Dungen as my new favourite; I’ve been aware of Soundtrack for a while, but have never listened very much to them.

It was a great experience. Dungen did both old and new songs; I was naturally more familiar with the older ones and enjoyed them sligthly more. The guitarist did a lot of truly impressive guitarwork despite seemingly having problems with the equipment from time to time. What I missed was maybe a second guitarist that could make the sound picture more complete; particularly when Gustav (the front man) was not playing his el-piano. Soundtrack did an amazing set, combining both acoustic and intense, electric moments.  My personal highpoint was when they played a Nick Drake cover. It worked surprisingly well in an upbeat rock setting and demonstrated once again to me Nick Drake’s genius.

Below is an acoustic version of Dungen’s ‘Det tar tid,’ performed in the narrow corridors of an old theatre; enjoy!

English is Coming

February 26, 2009

In last week’s edition of The Economist, there was an interesting piece about Europes struggle with the English language and how it presents challenges to both the Brits and to the Europeans. According to the article the development may point in a direction where most Europeans are bilingual, while the ‘Anglophones’ are monolingual. An effect that is already taking place in the UK is that children in school have to learn less foreign language, which ‘robs them of such benefits as the humility and respect for others that comr from learning another language.’ 

I written on the challenges English presents to science earlier. What I didn’t think of then, but have thought of since, is that brilliant researchers from outside the UK and US may seem less brilliant when they have to communicate in English. This is probably not a very severe problem, but at least on the individual level it can certainly have an impact. For example, if your brilliant article is left out to give room to a less-brilliant-but-better-written article, both you and the science is worse off.

Union Jack

More Voodoo

February 25, 2009

I half-promised myself that I would quite ‘reporting’ on the voodoo-debate. I cannot help it, however; it reaches new levels all the time. The latest attack posted on Gristmill, an environmental blog, generated so hatefull comments that John Whitehead of Env-Econ didn’t want to post his own comment there:

I’m sorry to say I don’t have skin thick enough to comment over at Grist given the hate your post brewed up.

I understand John; here are some samples from the comment section on Gristmill:

economists are arrogant whores

Economics, a science? Don’t make me laugh. […] [E]conomics is about as much science as astrology. Listen to an economist sometime. They always pepper their comments with some kind of jingoistic pro-American boilerplate, usually to cover up the fact that they haven’t a clue about what they just said

Voodoo economics (it’s all a quack religion) and actual science do not mix.  They don’t even seem to understand math principles like exponential change.  Could they be turned into Walmart greeters?  Would Walmart want economists?  Doubtful.

Tim Haab, also of Env-Econ, took the time to sit down and write a brilliant reply to the attack from Gristmill. Some of the anger from the Greens is rooted in economists suggesting that combining green jobs and the stimulus package to the American economy is not necessarily a good idea. Tim:

 It seems odd that Roberts would accept suboptimal stimulus and suboptimal green jobs policy when economists are arguing for good stimulus and good green jobs policy.  As John has said many times–stimulus is short term, green jobs is long term.  Why put bad green jobs policy and bad stimulus in place when we could have both with a little patience and thought and dare I say economics.

And from the comment section (still Tim):

I think there are two different time dimensions. There is immediacy on stimulus and less urgency for green jobs. It’s this difference in time that leads me to urge patience on green jobs.

I can hear the argument 5 yeears from now:

Environmentalist: “OK, now that the recession in over, we can really tackle renewable energy.”

DC: “What do you mean? We threw $XX billion at it back in 2009 in the stimulus package(s). You got your piece.”

Environmentalist: “Yeah, but that wasn’t the right policy, it was just a band-aid.”

DC: “Shouldn’t you have thought about that then?”

Economist: “We did.”

I do, as the commenter Patrick Walsh, find comfort in that economists seem to act most like adults in the debate:

I am comforted by the fact that the response to the attack on [Environmental Economics] has been economists trying to paint the full picture and fill in the details. I have not yet seen a counterattack, where economists bash enviros. This optimistic observation provides hope that there is significant room for collaboration, in the spirit of Tim Haab’s original post.

Related posts:

Replication in Economics

February 23, 2009

Despite the voodoo noise, a different and lot more interesting debate about replication in economics has started on Environmental Economics. The debate on Env-Econ is a response to a post on Market Movers, which opens like this:

Falsifiability and replicability are key cornerstones of any academic research. If you’re running an empirical study, and your results aren’t replicable, your study is largely worthless.

First of all, the claim that falsifiability is a key cornerstone of academic research is simply not true, or at least not agreed upon. I understand falsifiability in the Popperian sense:

For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory.

(Read more about Popper and his ideas at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Popper’s philosophy of science has been subject to extended debates. Thomas Kuhn, for example, claims that science consist of problem solving within a paradigm, and that paradigms change through scientific revolutions. In particular, Kuhn did not think that a statement had to be falsifiable to be scientific, as Popper did.

I am more willing to agree on the importance of replication. In the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, replication was truly important and researchers (ideally) remained sceptic towards new results until they had been replicated independently from the initial study. Since most research in physics and chemistry are conducted in laboratories, controlled experiments could fairly easily be replicated and results compared.

In economics, however, only recently have researchers started to conduct controlled experiments in laboratories. Tim Haab writes (On replicability in economics and the validation of models)

With economics models, at least until recently, we don’t have labs.  We are working with real observations from highly complex systems.  As such, we are forced to rely on modeling by assumption and measurement through statistical force rather than isolated direct observation.  This makes external validation of economic models extremely difficult.

This is changing over the past decade or so with the advent of experimental economics research in which researchers are testing fundamental economic results in a controlled setting.  Unfortunately, these experiments often suffer from over control which makes generalizability and practical applicability of laboratory results difficult at best. […]

To me, lack of replicability is not a condemnation of economics as a field, rather a challenge to the field to continue the unending pursuit of defensibility.

As Tim also points out, the post on Market Movers is primarily concerned with duplication of results (instead of independent replication), which requires the same data set and statistical tools. Such research is quite rare in economics, and it has different reasons (see Tim’s post). What is more common in economics, however, is that researchers collect their own data and see if they can find the same kind of conclusions as those available in the literature. John Whitehead puts it like this:

Why bother with replication with someone else’s data when you can publish your own study with your own data? The only time you ask for someone else’s data is if you really think they’ve made a horrible mistake or if you have an ax to grind.

However, I do agree with Market Movers that in general, replication and duplication is more important than what it seems to be in academia today.

Hat-tip: Env-Econ

Economists vs. Environmentalists

February 21, 2009

The voodoo climate-economics debate continues. Common Tragedies calls the bashing of economists on Climate Progress evidenceless and reveals a big problem with Joe Romm’s critique: 

Fortunately a prescient cohort of superintellects headed up by Joe Romm have calculated the true costs of climate action and inaction, and mapped out the optimal sequence of investment and innovation, which they will reveal to the world at some point in the very near future, making all the mainstream economists look like IDIOTS.

That is almost the ‘if-you-cannot-do-it-better-yourself-then-shut-up’ argument, which never applies (I’ll expound on why someday; remind me). Romm has more problems with his critique, however. As the TerraPass Footprint blog points out (Environmentalists and economists engage in slap fight while world burns), Romm quotes and uses results from economists in his arguing when they agree with his point of view, but still dismisses the economic science. “Which is it?” asks TerraPass,

The media is to blame for underreporting the awesome job economists are doing building a case for action on climate change? Or economists are a planet-destroying scourge? It can’t really be both.

The TerrePass post continues

I’m picking on Romm here, but this sort of commentary is fairly endemic to the green blogosphere. And it’s unfortunate […] [T]here is in fact a lot of prominent and dubious economic research on climate change that deserves proper critique, rather than unhinged broadsides against an entire academic discipline.

Romm do come up with some (but not only) proper, well-argued, and specific critque against specific economic research, but does the error to dismiss the entire discipline on the basis of specific examples. Furthermore, he does so inconsistently, as TerraPass already has pointed out, by recognizing only the results he agrees with. There are reasons (here is more) to be sceptic towards Climate Progress, in other words.

Hat-tip: Env-Econ

Related posts:

Joe Romm’s bashing of economists on Climate Progress:

From Environmental Economics:

From various blogs:

(I Can’t Write No) Dissertation

February 19, 2009

And while I’m on hillarious-economics-music stuff, here’s a music video from the Metrics Gang at UC Berkeley:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “(I Can’t Write) No Dissertation“, posted with vodpod

 

Economics Rap

February 19, 2009

This is hillarious. From Freakonomics, a rap about economics:

It’s all about the Law of Supply and Demand,
Prices are set by the Invisible Hand.

A floor that’s put on your product’s price
Is something the consumer will find not nice.

If you raise your price when demand’s elastic,
Your revenue will drop and you’ll go ballistic.

Get the same extra utiles for each extra dollar,
The maximum utility is sure to follow.

Produce where price equals marginal cost
If you don’t you’ll find that your profits are lost.

Always think about cost, opportunity,
If not, you’ll find you’re hurting your community.

Think margin, think margin.

Monopolists set MR to marginal cost
The result is that consumer surplus is lost

Make sure your strategies are subgame perfect
Plan your strategic interactions without any defect.

Tax the inelastic, or you’ll be hurtin’
Because you’ve created a large excess burden.

With positive externalities it’s always wise,
To encourage more production — subsidize.

A tariff or a quota helps a few producers,
But consumers will always be the big losers.

Sometimes you gotta choose efficiency or fairness,
Ya need more than econs, ya need political awareness.

Think margin, think margin.

The rap is written by Daniel Hamermesh, a regular contributor to Freakonomics. According to the post, he usually perfoms this rap to his microeconomics class “while wearing a whoopee cap and riding around the lecture theater on a Razor scooter.” Now I hope to see a video of this on YouTube anytime soon!

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

February 18, 2009

A while ago, I finished Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Why the World Needs a Green Revolution – And How We Can Renew Our Global Future by Thomas L. Friedman (I’ve mentioned it several times). Here are some thoughts on it.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

 The main theme of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that the path the world is on is unsustainable in several aspects. Global warming has the potential to change the world as we know it in ways we cannot imagine. More and more people around the world take part in the globalized market place, and they all demand a middle-class consumption level; development and modernization flattens out differences in living standards and consumption levels around the world.  The increased consumotion puts an enormous pressure on the worlds resources. Friedman has already discussed this extensively in the book The World Is Flat. Finally, the current, explosive population growth will put even further pressure on the worlds resources and potentially make the global warming problem worse. In a world that is hot, flat, and crowded, a whole range of important issues needs to be addressed, and fast. Friedman gives a good overview of the most important issues, discusses how they are all connected and different potential solutions.

Friedman is a good writer. He has won the Pulitzer price no less than three times. He has traveled the world for decades. He has interviewed world leaders, business leaders, scientists, and activists around the world. He knows his stuff. Nonetheless, I still have some criticism.

First of all, Thomas Friedman is an American and a patriot. That may be okey, but it shines through; Hot, Flat, and Crowded is written to and for Americans. At several places, Friedman discusses how the environmental crisis provides America with an opportunity to build the nation and yet again become the definitive super power and world leader. I was unprepared for this kind of perspective that permeates the book, and I didn’t like it. I’m not an American, and neither are many readers around the world. To deal with the environmental crisis requires global participation and coordination, and that may be jeoparized if it comes off as pro-American. Furthermore, it takes some of the focus away from the really important issues that Friedman brings up.

Second, much of the book consists of citings from various interviews, news stories, and op-eds Friedman has either written or read the last years. In parts of the book, Friedman cites more than he writes himself, and that is not good writing. It chops up the text, and the reader has to deal with new writing styles all the time. I’ve never seen such a heavy use of citations in any printed text; it reminds me of the way blogs are written. The language suitable for a blog is not necessarily suitable for books.

This is a blog, however. So, I’m taking the freedom to cite and comment on some passages from the book that stroke me as particularly interesting.

To Friedman, the issues raised by a hot, flat and crowded world are so serious and fundamental that they define a new era in the history of the world: the Energy-Climate Era. From pages 26-27:

This book focuses on five key problems that a hot, flat, and crowded world is dramatically intensifying. They are: the growing demand for ever scarcer energy supplies and natural resources; a massive transfer of wealth to oil-rich countries and their petrodictators; disruptive climate change; energy poverty, which is sharply dividing the world into electricty haves and electricity have-nots; and rapidly accelerating biodiversity oss, as plants and animlas go extinct at record rates. I believe that these problems – and how we manage them – will define the Energy-Climate Era.

China is a big country with a lot of people (see Million Cities in China), and will have a determining impact on the environment in the future. Friedman devotes an entire section of the book to China, and his illustration of China’s potential impact is sobering. It also leads Friedman to the crucial questions in his book. On page 344 he writes

It’s all in the numbers: China is one-fifth of humanity; it’s now the world’s biggest carbon emitter; it is the world’s second-largest importer of oil, after the United States; and according to a report in The Times of London (January 28, 2008), it is already the world’s largest importer of nickel, copper, aluminum, steel, coal, and iron ore. Timber is certainly up there as well. It is not an exaggeration to say: As goes China, so goes planet earth. If China can make a stable transition to clean power and an energy-and-resource-efficient economy, we as a planet have a chance to mitigate climate change, energy poverty, petrodictatorship, and biodiversity loss in significant ways. If China can’t, China’s emissions and appetites will nullify everything everyone else does to save the earth, and the Energy-Climate Era will careen toward the unmanageable. So for me, the crucial question of this book is actually two questions: “Can America really lead a real green revolution?” and “Can China really follow?” Everything else is just commentary…

What if China wants to be in the front seat? If Friedman is right that energy and climate issues will shape our global future, and I think he is, China will realize this at some point, and when they’re already leading the world in so much already, why should they settle for anything less when it comes to the most important issues in the decades to follow? More importantly, will America ever settle for second place?

Friedman has tons of arguments for acting on the environmental crisis. One of them is that it is necessary to preserve nature in a pristine state because it is beautiful. On page 142 he writes

From what landscapes or flowerbeds would future painters draw their inspiration? What would move poets to write their sonnets, composers to craft their symphonies, and religious leaders and philosophers to contemplate the meaning of God by examining his handiwork up close and in miniature?

The argument resurfaces on page 314:

[…] we need to get beyond these economic and […] practical arguments and get back in touch with the deepest truth of all: Green is a value that needs to be preserved in and of itself, not because it is going to make your bank account richer but because it makes life richer and always has. At the end of the day, that is what an “ethic of conservation” is also about. An ethic of conservation declares that maintaining our naturla world is a value that is impossible to quantify but also impossible to ignore, because of the sheer beauty, wonder, joy, and magic that nature brings to being alive.

I disagree; I’ve already discussed why in the post Beauty Schmeuty; I think human needs towards natural beauty are adaptive, and more is that if less beautiful nature can make people less religious, I’m fine with that.

In the end; a small curiosity. The image of the book above has a different subtitle than my book (Why We Need a Green Revolution – And How It Can Renew America vs. Why The World Needs a Green Revolution – And How We Can Renew Our Global Future). The image is stolen from Friedman’s homepage. I suspect that I got the international version, while the image on Friedman’s homepage shows the American version of the book. I’m convinced that the subtitle on the American version is the original subtitle, and that the alternative subtitle on the international version is a tradeoff between remaining the same structure on the subtitle (Why Green – How Renew) and a good, selling subtitle. I don’t think Friedman was too lucky with that; ‘Renew Global Future’? What is that supposed to mean? Can you renew the future, something you don’t have, don’t know how is, and isn’t new?

I enjoyed reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded, but I found it too long. Friedman is a master of rhetoric, and a rhetorical mean he grips to repeatedly is repetition of key words and arguments. He really wants to hammer the message home. He overdoes it, however. The words hot, flat, and crowded, and climate change, energy poverty, petrodictatorship, and biodiversity loss, and compete, connect, and collaborate are repeated so many times that it becomes boring; and the repetition of arguments becomes predictable, and boring. Friedman has still written an important book, a book that opened my eyes to a lot of problems I didn’t knew existed, and a lot of new, exiting ideas. We are living in exiting times; we are living in the Energy-Climate Era!

Related posts:

The Rhetoric of Climate Progress

February 16, 2009

It may seem that I’m obsessed with Climate Progress nowadays, and that may be true to some extent. Climate Progress is concerned with the most important thing; the sustainability of our way of life and of the environment. I’m not sure, howere, that Climate Progress always helps the case; I want to discuss the rhetoric of Climate Progress.

The rhetoric on Climate Progress does not convince. Convincing is exactly a trace of good writing and of effective rhetoric. Good writing should let people think by themselves by coherent arguments and supporting facts, and not descend to cheap characteristics and half-truths.

 In some posts (Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1, Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”), Joe Romm discusses why climate scientists have a tendency to loose debates against climate change deniers. There he argues that a common strategy of climate change deniers is to produce untrue statements and present incoherent or illogical arguments leading to flawed conclusions. The best response to such arguing, according to Joe Romm, is to pick up on it, denie the untrue statements and reveal the flaws in the incoherent and illogical arguments. I agree. If such a strategy is followed with success it should not be necessary also to come up with cheap characteristics and other poor ways to discredit people. I think one loses respect and attention to ones arguments then.

I am sorry that Joe Romm does not take the opportunity to argue in a polite manner with convincing and coherent writing when he commands one of the most important climate blogs nowadays, but sees it necessary to sprinkle it with cheap characteristics and speculative halftruths as he does in his voodoo economics series, for example (Do Econmists Help Fight Climate Change?).

Related posts:

Learning

February 16, 2009

A colleague told me his view of learning. You start from zero and learn something. At some point you might get the feeling that you know everything. You then learn more, and if you go on to graduate level studies, you might end up feeling that you know nothing! Then, he said, you might really know a little bit about something very small.

In some sense, he’s right. On the graduate level, one learns ‘cutting-edge’ science or at least one gets some perspective of the entire body of knowledge on ones field. Intrinsic in this process one also learns what the existing body of knowledge and the current scientific regime cannot explain. Typically, scientific discoveries opens up more questions than are answered, particularly in scientific revolutions. From the cutting-edge-of-science perspective one sees a vast range of problems and unanswered questions. Ones knowledge, however, certainly is limited. It is true, then, that one does not necessarily know very much about many different things, but one has to know quite a lot about some things.

Climate Progress sceptisism

February 13, 2009

Although I’ve read much of what has been written on Climate Progress lately (and I’m an economist!), I’ve started to get sceptic. One of the favorite pastimes of Joe Romm, the main contributer, is to bash climate change deniers. They may deserve bashing and it is often entertaining to read, but I’m not sure name calling and half-truths is as efficient as Mr. Romm seem to believe. Descending to such ‘debates’ is not exactly progressive.

Up until now, I’ve found Climate Progress to be rather well informed when it comes to science in general, and climate science in particular. One would, however, be illadvised if one tried to learn about geo-engineering from Climate Progress:

If you are not yet familiar with geo-engineering, I will attempt to define it in non-technical terms before offering a few observations on the new research:

  • Geo-engineering is the practice of messing around with global life-support systems we don’t understand. If we did understand them, we might not be in the pickle we’re in today. Or at least it would be a greener pickle.
  • Geo-engineering is a relatively new field based on the outdated and repeatedly discredited assumption that we humans are smart enough and wise enough to rule over the rest of the biosphere. Rather than applied engineering, we might call it “applied conceit”.
  • Contrariwise and at the same time, geo-engineering is a symptom of our growing skepticism that we are able to stop climate change with rational solutions such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon pricing and behavioral changes. In other words, interest in geo-engineering is rooted in the idea that although we’re too stupid to do the simple things that would slow climate change, we’re smart enough to do the improbable things.
  • Geo-engineering is one outgrowth of our apparent learning disability about the law of unintended consequences. That law would be unleashed full-force once we started manipulating the oceans and atmosphere to create what one environmentalist calls “the Frankenplanet”. Geo-engineering is like a grownup version of whack-a-mole, where hammering down one problem causes others to pop up, to our great surprise.

Define it in non-technical terms! Jeez. I’m sure most readers would discard such writing as garbage. First of all, that list is not even slightly informative when it comes to geo-engineering if you take all the distractive bashing into account. Furthermore, the first point made applies to all climate and energy science, stuff that Climate Progress believes in and promotes every single day. Being sceptic about geo-engineering is of course fine, but such posts are just counter-productive!

In the same post, Climate Progress writes that if we, that is, the human race, don’t understand and act on climate change before it is too late,

we will have demonstrated for all time that 1) we are the ultimate invasive species, and 2) we are not the most intelligent species, and 3) when it comes to our own survival, we have no more willpower than lemmings.

Of course humans are invasive! What is intelligence? (Is it something that pertains to humans? What does the average dolphin score on its IQ test?) Willpower? (Incentives matter!)

I’m not sure how long I’ll keep reading Climate Progress: They are full of prejudice, they hate economists, they are rude, and they start to become boring. (Willpower? What willpower?)

This week’s KAL cartoon (The Economist)

February 10, 2009

KAL cartoon

UPDATE: Greed is one thing. The big problem was that the first bag of money was only half-full with real money; the rest was bad credit and sub-prime loans. The second bag, however, is real money (not in Iceland, though) borrowed from the future. Is that fair?

Hate hate?

February 4, 2009

I’ve been listening to Broken Social Scene’s self-titled album from 2005 lately. It’s a really great album; go listen! Inside the cover it says ‘We hate your hate.’ I’m sure Broken Social Scene has good intentions; what is good about hate? I cannot think of anything positive with hate and I’m convinced that even though I’m not particularly imaginative, hate is net negative. So, all it takes is some hate and a lot of people living after the ‘hate hate’ motto, and you quickly end up in a situation with a lot of hate. Hating hate generates more hate, more hate is not good. Broken Social Scene got it wrong.

EAERE 2009

February 3, 2009

I spent last week preparing a manuscript for submission to the EAERE 2009 conference (instead of writing posts here, obviously…). EAERE 2009 is the annual conference of the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, to be held in Amsterdam in June. I attended EAERE 2008 in Gothenburg last year, and it was a great experience. I’ve not been to very many conferences, but when my supervisor, who has been going to conferences since the seventies, said it was one of the best he had ever been to, I feel confindent when I say it was a great conference. Now, all I need is my contribution to be accepted,  some financial support of course, and I’m off!

EAERE 2009 banner

Mogwai

February 3, 2009

Mogwai was thee band that opened my eyes (and my heart) to post-rock. Someone has described post-rock as ‘non-rock music played with rock instruments.’ That’s only half true, of course. Post-rock is played with rock instruments, but what does non-rock mean? Post-rock is certainly heavily influenced by rock, and many post-rock songs could easily be generally sorted under rock. Post-rock is a strange genre of rock music, by the way; I still haven’t heard a really bad post-rock album! One of my music-geek friends could not name a bad post-rock album either. I can think of two possible explanations. Either post-rock is such an easy genre that anyone can do it, or only the really good ones do it. Maybe it is a little bit of both. Certainly, a lot of intelligent, gifted musicians play post-rock. But what does it take to ‘fail’ in post-rock? Singing too much? I don’t know, and that may be a bad sign.

Anyway, the first Mogwai album I owned was Rock Action. I was sold immediately. I love every song on that record, and I play it way too seldom. I remember seeing Mogwai on the Øya Festival in Oslo, in 2003 I think it was. The concert was a weird experience, with technical problems throughout, a short nod to Turbonegro (the headliner the previous day), and thrashing of equipment which almost ended up in a fight between the keyboardist and one from the stage crew, but it was still great. I listened to Happy Songs for Happy People (such an ironic title) on the way home, I think I bought it at the festival, and remember being a little bit disapointed at first. The album grew on me, however. Now, I regard the opener ‘Hunted By a Freak’ one of their greatest efforts; a definition I measure other post-rock bands against.

Below is a beautifully animated movie for ‘Hunted By a Freak’ (from YouTube). It is sad and grotesque in an almost Gaimanesque (see second half of post; I would prefer Gaimanic, or even Gaimanian, but Google has spoken) way.