Archive for May, 2009

Franz Kafka: The Trial

May 18, 2009

I finished the Norwegian translation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ a few days ago. It was everything I thought it not to be, and that’s embarrasing since Kafka is one of the most renown writers of the 20th century. Most of Kafka’s work was published after his death, against his own wishes, by his friend, Max Brod. (Although it may be the case that Kafka knew Brod would never burn all his work, as he requested; Brod claims so in the afterword to ‘The Trial.’) The Trial is not the best book I’ve read, but then again, I expected something else, so what to expect?

The part that stood out and which I like the best is the short story “Before the Law” in one of the last chapters. It’s about a farmer that wants to gain access to the law, but the gatekeeper won’t let him in. It’s quite an absurd story, but it fits very well in the context of the book. The main character in ‘The Trial’ discusses the story with a priest, and their discussion is also one of the highlights of the book. In fact, the entire chapter containing “Before the Law” is brilliant.

Kafka has very precise language, and excercises full control over the tone in his writing. I wonder how it is to read him in the original German. If for nothing else, everyone who writes probably has something to learn from Kafka: Begin with the English translation of “Before the Law” (I planned to publish it here, but got second thoughts; you know, copyright and that kind of stuff).


Unintended Consequences of the Endangered Species Act

May 15, 2009

I’ve posted on research on the Endangered Species Act earlier. Yesterday, Freakonomics’s Stephen J. Dubner mentioned an earlier post of theirs which discusses the unintended consequences of it (Dubner draws a parallel to other protective laws with similar unintended consequences):

Consider the Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.) of 1973, which protects flora and fauna as well as their physical habitats. The economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael wanted to gauge the E.S.A.’s effect on the red-cockaded woodpecker, a protected bird that nests in old-growth pine trees in eastern North Carolina. By examining the timber harvest activity of more than 1,000 privately owned forest plots, Lueck and Michael found a clear pattern: when a landowner felt that his property was turning into the sort of habitat that might attract a nesting pair of woodpeckers, he rushed in to cut down the trees. It didn’t matter if timber prices were low.

This happened less than two years ago in Boiling Spring Lakes, N.C. “Along the roadsides,” an A.P. article reported, “scattered brown bark is all that’s left of once majestic pine stands.” As sad as this may be, it isn’t surprising to anyone who has examined the perverse incentives created by the E.S.A. In their paper, Lueck and Michael cite a 1996 developers’ guide from the National Association of Home Builders: “The highest level of assurance that a property owner will not face an E.S.A. issue is to maintain the property in a condition such that protected species cannot occupy the property.”


In a new working paper that examines the plight of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the economists John List, Michael Margolis and Daniel Osgood found that landowners near Tucson rushed to clear their property for development rather than risk having it declared a safe haven for the owl. The economists make the argument for “the distinct possibility that the Endangered Species Act is actually endangering, rather than protecting, species.”

The article concludes: “…if there is any law more powerful than the ones constructed in a place like Washington, it is the law of unintended consequences.”

Stay tuned and I will use that exact quote from the List, Margolis and Osgood paper in my own research!

Related post:

Whitehead: It’s Time to Get Moving

May 11, 2009

John Whitehead of Environmental Economics starts to grow tired of the ongoing debate in the U.S. over how to react to climate change and the need to do something about all the carbon in the atmosphere. He asks Is the house burning while we debate what type of extinguisher to use? :

Enough already.  It’s time to stop.  And start.


The academic debate over the minutae of CNT [cap’n’trade] or CT [carbon tax] misses the bigger point:  Both price carbon.  Sure they go about it in different ways and have different distributional properties and one may be more politically or socially or morally or religiously palatable than the other, but in the end they both do the same thing–put a price on the external costs of carbon-based consumption.


…I realize the debate is starting to hinder rather than help progress.  It’s time to get moving.

Shai Agassi: Electric Evangelist

May 11, 2009

I mentioned Shai Agassi a while ago, which lead the Economist to run an article on him. They call him an electric evangelist, which suggests they don’t really believe he can do what he promises (it’s actually much worse: everyone knows evangelists are full of b-s).

More interestingly, they describe what Agassi’s firm (Better Place) has set out to do, why they might fail, and what Agassi himself thinks of the critique:

Better Place’s business model involves selling electric cars (provided by its partner, Renault-Nissan) using a scheme borrowed from the mobile-telecoms industry—charging not by the minute, but by the kilometre. Customers will be able to pay as they go or sign up for a contract that includes a certain number of kilometres. They will even get a subsidised car if they subscribe to big enough packages, just as mobile operators subsidise handsets for their highest-paying customers. Better Place will build networks of recharging points, plus battery-swapping stations along motorways that will, in effect, enable customers to recharge their cars in minutes in order to travel further than the 160km (100-mile) range of their cars’ battery packs.


Some sceptics say consumers will prefer to buy electric cars that plug into ordinary electric sockets than to be “locked in” to an operator of recharging points. Even if Better Place can build its networks, say others, it will not be profitable for years because the infrastructure is so expensive (its battery-swapping stations cost $500,000 each). The latest electric-car designs distribute batteries around the body to improve handling—an approach that is incompatible with Better Place’s battery-swapping stations. And won’t customers want to own, rather than borrow, the batteries in their cars?


Electric cars’ inherent drawbacks, says Mr Agassi, will not vanish soon: batteries are expensive, and they cannot be charged in the time it takes to fill a tank unless there is a power station next to each charging point. Only when the battery is physically and economically separate from the vehicle, he insists, will electric cars be cheap and convenient enough for the mass market. “Better Place will succeed”, says Mr Agassi, “because I have seen no other viable plan for getting the world off its dependency on oil.” All he needs to do now is prove he is right.

Related post:

Weinberger’s Shadow: Andrew Keen

May 10, 2009

David Weinberger has a shadow, and its name is Andrew Keen. Keen on his shadowy characteristics of Mr. Weinberger:

We have both written polemics about the future of information, mine a modernist defense of ontological order, his a postmodern embrace of ontological disorder. Our books came out within a week of the other. We are each other’s shadow, covering the same ground, perplexed by the same dilemmas, struggling to interpret the same riddle about taxonomies of knowledge in the digital economy. We even work in the same place — he in Cambridge (the Berkeley of the East Coast), me in Berkeley (the Cambridge of the West Coast).

Keen is an internet skeptic, or, he doesn’t believe the internet is democratic, that it will free knowledge from the limitations of paper (as Weinberger claims), or that it will allow us to realize our humanity. He has written a book about his ideas, of course: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy.

Damn, another book I have to read. Oh well, at least it will bring balance to my current knowledge about how the internet may change how the world works. I really look forward to it, particularly given my problems with several of Weinberger’s arguments and ideas (see, for example, my discussion of Weinberger’s ideas on knowledge, and, more generally, my review of his book).

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More on Knowledge & Weinberger

May 7, 2009

I’ve been thinking more about David Weinberger’s ideas of knowledge and how it is formed and communicated. (I’ve discussed Weinberger earlier; see sort-of-review and on knowledge, and an excerpt from his book.) Weinberger seem convinced that the emergence of the internet, and particularly user oriented knowledge bases such as Wikipedia, will change the shape of knowledge: We need to adapt to the new shape of knowledge (see the excerpt).

First of all, what is knowledge, and how is it formed (not shaped; created)? I don’t have the answer to those questions, and they require more space and time than what I intend to spend: There is an entire philosophical branch devoted to knowledge and its structure; it’s called epistemology. (And I don’t know much about it, so what is to follow is amateur epistemology; consider yourself warned.)

My first thought is that there are two types of knowledge: personal knowledge and external knowledge. The personal kind of knowledge is basically the content of your brain, and consist of both external knowledge and memories of experiences. Memories of experiences form skills, for example; a type of knowledge that is not external. External knowledge is knowledge as recorded in books, on film, and so on. (External is probably a terrible word, but I could not come up with a better one; suggestions?) Weinberger is primarily concerned with external knowledge, and so is epistemology as far as I understand.

I described external knowledge as recorded knowlegde, and that is important. Knowledge on the internet is recorded in some form, mostly in writing. When it is recorded, it is communicated. Communication is crucial to knowledge. If I’m not wrong, Weinberger touches upon the importance of communication somewhere in his book. My point is that it is extremely hard to communicate knowledge. Anyone who has tried to put an idea down in writing knows how hard it is. Knowledge is often complicated and involved with other knowledge, which makes it harder. Bad writing is unclear; my personal opinion is that much of the writing on Wikipedia is not particularly good. I’m not certain that millions of anonymous editors can make it better. Weinberger argues that when people stop editing an article on Wikipedia, it constitutes the knowledge ‘we’ agree on. Agreement does not necessarily imply clearly written prose. To the contrary, it may be easier to agree on something fluffy and unclear, which may even mean different things to different people.

Who are ‘we’, by the way? If I’m not mistaken, only about every sixth person has daily access to the internet in the world today. How many of those who do have access devote time to edit articles on Wikipedia? The fact that certain kinds of people may be more interested in Wikipedia can lead to bias. The fact that a lot of smart people never contribute to Wikipedia leads to incompleteness.

Finally, Weinberger underscores the problem of statements which may constitute knowledge to some, but not to others. I don’t see how Wikipedia can solve that: In the end, there is only one article on each topic. It may be broad and change through time, but I simply don’t believe one source can ever be enough.

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Sustainable Energy – without the hot air

May 6, 2009

‘Sustainable Energy – without the hot air’ is a new book by David MacKay. I have not read it, but I very well might after reading an interesting review of it in the Economist.

David MacKay thinks there is too much hot air surrounding energy and climate change discussions. In his book, MacKay does back-of-the-envelope calculations of the potential in different renewable energies as alternatives to coal. For example, he concludes that if all of Britain’s energy needs should be supplied from onshore wind power, the entire country needs to be covered by wind turbines. From the review:

Although Mr MacKay’s conclusions are fascinating, much of his book’s appeal lies in its methods. Ballpark calculations are a powerful way of getting to grips with a problem. The book is a tour de force, showing, for example, how the potential contribution of biofuels can be approximated from just three numbers: the intensity of sunlight, the efficiency with which plants turn that sunlight into stored energy and the available land area in Britain. As a work of popular science it is exemplary: the focus may be the numbers, but most of the mathematical legwork is confined to the appendices and the accompanying commentary is amusing and witty, as well as informed.

MacKay’s book is now on my short list of books to read. (Download it for free from!)

Tag Cloud

May 5, 2009

I’ve added a tag cloud to my blog; you’ll find it  at the bottom of the right hand side panel. It is an alphabetical list of the tags I use the most, and the relative size of each tag is related to how often the different tags are used. (I guess I’m the only one so backward that I think I need to explain a tag cloud, but anyway.)

The tag clouds tells me some interesting things. First of all, I spend too much time reciting and discussing discussions from Freakonomics. Second, I’ve probably spent more time and space on the financial crisis than warranted (see also bailout). Finally, there are a lot of names in that cloud. Names may not be the best tags, but I find it naturally to add tags of the names I mention in posts (I’m not entirely sure why, though).

I also realized that the tag cloud is not a perfect representation of what I write about the most. I write a lot about books, for example; it doesn’t show in the tag cloud (even though some of the author’s names and names of the books surface in the cloud, one need to know what to look for to see that). A surf to the ‘Literature’ catagory will show that I’ve posted quite a lot on books.

I think I still like the tag cloud, dispite it’s imperfectness (what is perfect, anyway?). It remains to see how it will affect what I write about and how I use tags…

Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

May 4, 2009

It’s been a while since I finished ‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ by David Weinberger, and I’ve been planning to put down some thoughts on it. It’s an interesting book; it forced me to think about stuff in new and different ways than before. I don’t always agree with Weinberger, though.

The book is about how the web and its new ways of organizing and connecting things changes how we think, how we work, how knowledge forms, and, ultimately, us. That last point, how the web 2.o (which is a fancy buzzword for web pages and appliances letting its users contribute in different ways) changes us is actually never discussed in the book, but it certainly is understood and implied in Weinberger’s grandiose views. After all, how we think is a part of who and what we are.

Weinberger main topic is order. There are three orders: The first order is the order of physical things, like how books are lined up on shelves in a library. The second order is the catalogue order. A catalogue typically refers to a physical order; it is still physical, but one can make several catalogs of the same physical order. Weinberger’s prime example is the card catalog of libraries. The third order of order is the digital order, where there is no limit to the number of possible orderings. The digital order frees itself from physical reality, and in it, everything can be connected and related to everything else: Everything is miscellaneous.

‘Everything is Miscellaneous’ is, naturally, the topic of numerous blog entries and online discussions. For example, I stumbled across the blog ‘Experiencing Information’ by James Kalbach, and he has some interesting thoughs on Weinberger’s book. In one post, he discusses an analogy between Weinbergers three orders of order and Karl Popper’s theory of reality: I was unaware of Popperian cosmology, but the analogy is striking. In another post, he critizises Weinberger’s use of the library card catalogue as example and illustration of how backward the second (and first) order is. Instead, he suggests that the real topic of interest is the Time of Information in the third order, and not the order itself:

I agree with Weinberger that the third order of organization the web affords is different, but not because other means of accessing books (just to stick with that example) don’t exist. That vision was already there in the paper world.

There are indexes that provide access to Bach cantatas by the first line of text, for instance. Same for poetry. And then there are the countless literature guides in just about any discipline and sub-discipline.

So what the web really changes is:
a.) Who is doing the organizing. Now it’s everyone instead of information professionals
b.) The time it takes to create new lists of access points to books, to then find those list, and to use them effectively.

The Time of Information in the third order, then, is the real thing to focus on.

I would say it is also worth to foucs on who organizes, and who contributes content. Weinberger thinks highly of Wikipedia, for example, where any user can add, change, tag, comment, and link to any material. It sounds chaotic, and it often is. However, over time, stuff tend to settle down. In Weinberger’s view, it’s all fantastic:

[I]magine it is ten years from now. New topics are still being added to Wikipedia an old ones edited, but not at the rate of the early years. The big arguments have mainly been settled. There are continuous small edits polishing the more popular articles, but big changes have become more rare. Wikipedia then constitutes the body of knowledge about which we agree. […] Wikipedia is commoditizing knowledge, continuing a trend that search engines such as Google began. Text-books also present settled knowledge, or at least present it as settled, but the Internet makes knowledge as instantly available as a calculator’s “equals” button [pp. 214-215].

In fairness, Weinberger admits that Wikipedia will never be complete, and there will always be something to argue about. I think there are several reasons to be skeptic towards Wikipedia. Interestingly enough,  Wikipedia itself has a discussion of some of its problems (here), and most of my concerns are in fact covered there.  (I’ve quoted more of Weinberger’s ideas about how the internet changes knowledge in an earlier post.)

Weinberger sees potential value in every link, tag and comment added to the third order. Personally, however, I often find the links distracting. I should just ignore them, of course, but when I click them, it’s not because I don’t think its interesting to me. That is not the point. A thought experiment illustrates the problem: In a hundred years, there may exist articles on Wikipedia, or elsewhere on the web, where every word links to something else. Every word. And, even worse, and we don’t even have to do time travel to experience another problem; the same word may link to different things at different places. (Of course, that can be a strengt as well, but it can certainly be a problem.)

I want to go back to James Kalbach: In a third post he claims that libraries are not as useless as Weinberger seem to think:

Missing from Everything is Miscellaneous, then, is a discussion of the user experience you have while in the stacks of a DDC library. [Dewey Decimal System: A very common classification system used by libraries.] Namely, the books are arranged by subject. If you find one book on Muslims, others around it are likely to be about Muslims too.

And if you think people don’t look left and right when retrieving a book from a shelf, you’re wrong. They do. It’s an important type of information discovery in physical libraries. Let’s say you go to the stacks for a biography of J.S. Bach. You may then see biographies of C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach, perhaps whom you didn’t know much about or even existed. That’s an interesting connection you may not have seen online or in a card catalogue.

I love to go to the library, the only problem is that it takes more time than I usually have.

Without going into more detail, I disagree with Weinberger on a lot of issues. I still found the book very interesting; a lot of it is philosophical discussions related to order, knowledge, information, and communication. A particularly interesting discussion is the one on ‘The Span of Meaning’ (p. 169 and onwards). I end this post with a short quote from it:

Meaning‘s own meanings span a range unique in our language. On the one end, a meaning is a simple definition one can look up in a dictionary. At the other end, meaning is the broadest term for what gives value to our lives [p. 169].

Related posts:

Picture of the Day

May 1, 2009

How Blood Works

“How Blood Works” (2007), Kim Hiorthøy.

Hat-tip: Standard (Oslo)