Archive for August, 2010

Sonnet – To Science by Edgar Allan Poe

August 28, 2010

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realitites?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

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Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

August 26, 2010

I just finished this little gem of a book by Paul Auster. There is really two stories in this book. One belongs elsewhere and happens outside the confined space of Travels. It is still fully contained in the book. The other, main story takes place in the Scriptorium (presumably), but is really only a fraction of a larger story. The reader only get hints and suggested ideas about the full story and its grand plot, like the contour of a mountain in the mist suggests its monumental dimension. (Ups, getting carried away.)

I cannot write much about this book. First I don’t know what to write. Second, it’s so small that Imay reveal too much too easily and too soon. Instead, I’ll quote from a review of reviews (a strange concept, indeed; fitting for the strangeness of Travels):

A fairly conclusive sign that a book has confounded its reviewers’ critical faculties is when the reviewers in question aren’t even sure just what the book is. I can certify that the words “A Novel” appear on the front cover of Paul Auster’s newest release, Travels in the Scriptorium, yet, “about a third of the way through,” writes Allen Barra for Salon, “you may get an odd sense that you’re not reading a real novel.” John Freeman in the Philadelphia Inquirer Review labels it a “short, brisk, odd little fable,” and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Daniel Dyer calls it a “spare, sometimes puzzling allegory of the mind of a novelist.” Steven Poole in The New Statesman says it is “a sort of manifesto.” Lightheaded with enthusiasm, Howard Norman in The Washington Post writes that it’s a “fictional treatise on crime and amnesia,” and then, mere paragraphs later, calls it “part dystopian myth and part literary séance.” […]

Fable, allegory, manifesto, treatise, myth, homage, exercise (James Gibbons’s word in Bookforum), “comment on the modern condition”: since Travels in the Scriptorium is only 145 pages long—it’s brevity is nowhere disputed, although those who like the book call it “spare” and those who dislike it call it “skimpy”—some equivocation is detectable here.

Be warned, the review of reviews (a super reveiw?) do reveal parts of the plot, and the plot is limited but still grand, so go read the book instead. Read reviews later.

A Question of Balance by William Nordhaus

August 24, 2010

Before I went into summer mode, I finished William Nordhaus’s book A Question of Balance (read short excerpt). The book’s subtitle is Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies. The book is somewhere inbetween a popular account of the economics of climate change and a technical report on Nordhaus’s (and his team of research assistants’s, one might add) analysis of different approaches to mitigate global warming. A lot of details are saved for the actual technical reports available online. (Note: Details have been updated since the book was published [2008]). Nordhaus still goes through and explains the main equations of the famous DICE model (Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy), such that most economists could use his online computer code to verify results and further play around with the model.

Before the technicalities, however, Nordhaus provides a ‘Summary for the Concerned Citizen’ (slightly pompous guy, this Nordhaus). The chapter gives a fair overview of the current concerns over global warming and how economists view and deal with them. I find it interesting how Nordhaus, who has already made sure readers are ‘concerned,’ tries to establish the DICE model as trustworthy:

The DICE model is like an iceberg. The visible part contains a small number of mathematical equations that represent the laws of output, emissions, climate change, and economic impacts. Yet beneath the surface, so to speak, these equations rest upon hundreds of studies of the individual components made by specialists in the natural and social sciences [pp. 7-8].

Among the important results Nordhaus reports to the Concerned is the policy ramp, where relatively small policy adjustments are made in the early period while rather heavy adjustments are necessary later. The delay of action limits the costliness of the policy plan. It’s effect is also limited, as calculated damages sums to $17 trillion globally. The results are of course highly uncertain, and although Nordhaus returns to the uncertainty issue several times, I still think he underplays the uncertainty in his results.

Nordhaus is clear on what he thinks about subsidies. He also instructs the Concerned on how to think about climate change policies:

To a first approximation, raising the price of carbon is a necessary and sufficient step for tackling global warming. The rest is at best rhetoric and may actually be harmful in inducing economic inefficiencies [p. 22].

Nordhaus closes his address to the Concerned with a clear message:

Global warming is a serious problem that will not solve itself. Countries should take cooperative steps to slow global warming. There is no case for delay [p. 28].

Again, the summary for the Concerned give the interested a fair idea of economists approach to climate change and their results, and while the rest of the book is rather dry (ideal for falling asleep), economists dabbling in related fields should at least be familiar with the summary.

Now, the remainder of the book is more like a light-version technical report on Nordhaus’s economic analysis of climate change. While the research is well carried out and well documented (one might question the approach to the uncertainty analysis [eh, don’t ask]), I am now reminded of Weitzman’s presentation at WCERE 2010. (“This paper asks how much we might be misled by our economic assessment of climate change when we employ a conventional quadratic damages function and/or a thin-tailed probability distribution for extreme temperatures.”) Weitzman concluded that what’s necessary is not research on the median scenario (like IPCC and Nordhaus), but rather research on fat tail distributions and catastrophic events. Weitzman argued forcefully for his conclusions and it is hard not to agree, horseshit or not.

Nordhaus carries out comparisons with well-known alternatives to climate change policies. The most prominent one, presented in the Stern Review, is found to induce ‘major inefficiencies’ (p. 76). Later in the book, a whole chapter is devoted to discussing the Stern Review approach.

A Question of Balance is a rather dry read. Perhaps expectedly, and somewhat ironic, one of the more interesting passages is found in footnote 1 to chapter VII and deals with interpretation of uncertainty (p. 215). Notwithstanding, it is clear that William Nordhaus is a major voice in the current debate over global warming mitigation. One of his main messages, and one I agree with, is his preferred choice of instrument: an internationally harmonized price on carbon. Whether the numbers he come up with are relevant remains to be seen, but they are at least scary. Really scary.

Related post:

Useful CV-setup for LaTeX

August 19, 2010

A while ago, obvioiusly while going over my CV, I discovered this very useful LaTeX template for CV’s. It’s extremely simple to use, just download the tex-file, edit it with your information, and pdflatex it. There are a couple of templates for CV’s floating around, but this is the best I’ve seen so far. (And yes, I use it myself.) Enjoy!

Related posts:

IIFET 2010

August 18, 2010

I attended IIFET 2010 in Montpellier, France, this summer. I had a great time, meeting colleagues from around the world. IIFET stands for the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade and organises biennial conferences. I’ve been to a couple of conferences, but never to an all-fisheries one; it was a pleasing experience (I’m a fisheries guy).

In addition to the social/network aspect of going to conferences (which is, perhaps, 50% of my motivation to attend conferences), I appreciate the plenary sessions. I observe that many conference participants skip the plenary sessions, but I cannot understand why. The conference organizers have, probably in most cases, tried tried their best to get the best and most interesting plenary speakers. Most times, invited keynote speakers have important and interesting things to tell you (it cannot be everyday they have the attention of an entire research field, and if they realize, they will struggle to make their talk matter). A missed plenary is a missed oportunity to learn from and listen to someone important who has something important to say.

One of the plenary speakers at IIFET 2010 was Anthony Scott, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, 87 years old, and a living legend in fisheries economics.* In his talk, he applied Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about scientific revolutions to fisheries economics. Truly amazing. Not only the idea itself, which seem obvious once it is formulated but still requires a wide perspective and intimate and detailed knowledge of the whole field to be formulated, but also that he remains relevant and contributes 55 years down the road. I just hope someone is responsible enough to make sure that paper gets published in one form or another.

The other speaker in the same plenary session was the IIFET 2010 Distinguished Service Award winner Susan Hanna. (Anthony Scott was given the IIFET Fellow Award, by the way.) Her talk was another plenary I wouldn’t have missed. She critisized how the current practice (meaning everything from publishing and hiring practices down to choice of words and metaphors) in fisheries economics, and in much of economics for that matter, failed to fulfill the ideal of any research activity; to be relevant in the real world, to inform policy, and to educate the public. I just hope everyone listened really carefully.

UPDATE: As Ann Shriver, IIFET’s Executive Director, writes in the comments, Susan Hanna’s presentation is available at the IIFET home page. It gets really interesting from slide 10 and onwards. Ann Shriver also confirms that both Scott’s and Hanna’s papers will be published.

* In 1955, Scott published the influental and cornerstone-article ‘The Fishery: The Objectives of Sole Ownership’ in the Journal of Political Economy. From a (fairly) recent praise-speak:

In present day fisheries economics, we accept [Scott’s] 1955 conclusions without question […] So, we can argue that [the] 1955 article provided the foundation for present day fisheries economics. It was, in fact, an article well ahead of its time.

Legendary status is further confirmed by the Anthony Scott fonds in  the UBC Archives; a collection of all his letters, reports, lecture notes, and even desktop diaries(!), no less than 7.15 meters of ‘textual materials.’

The Political Economy of Institutions and Resources

August 12, 2010

James A. Robinson, an economist at Harvard, writes about the political economy of the tragedy of the commons in a recent World Bank report.*

First, Robinson points out that economic theory mainly has three solutions to the tragedy; governmental intervention, Coasian bargaining, and Ostrom cooperation. The issue, however, is how to make a solution politically feasible.

It will be the nature of the political equlibrium which will determine whether or not there is, or is not, a tragedy of the commons. Failure to solve the tragedy of the commons is a political failure (p. 51).

Robinson wants economists to think about politics:

[…] it is not enough for economists to propose sensible solutions to the tragedy of the commons. These already exist. The problem is that the sensible solutions are not adopted because political forces are not aligned in the right way. Another way to think about this is to observe that too much attention has been given to figuring out what is the optimal policy, with little concern given to what is politically feasible [p. 53].

In conclusion:

[…] without an understanding of what political forces lead to the endurance of the tragedy of the commons in fisheries, we will not be able to solve it [p. 54].

A study of the political economy of fisheries councils and similar governing bodies would really interest me.

* The Political Economy of Natural Resource Use: Lessons for Fisheries Reform, Leal, D. (ed.), Prepared for the Global Program on Fisheries (PROFISH), April 2010. Agriculture and Rural Development Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

Periodic Productivity worked for me

August 11, 2010