Posts Tagged ‘The Economist’

The Schrödinger Experiment

October 8, 2009

The Economist reports on a couple of scientists who will try to perform the Schrödinger cat experiment on living organisms for the first time. I must admit, despite having studied physics for a full year at the university level, I never really grasped the relevance of the Schrödinger experiment. Anyway, it is the first time I’ve seen such an accurate and at the same time brief description of the experiment in the popular press:

[One] of the most famous unperformed experiments in science is Schrödinger’s cat. In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger […], who was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, imagined putting a cat, a flask of Prussic acid, a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter, an electric relay and a hammer in a sealed box. If the atom decays, the Geiger counter detects the radiation and sends a signal that trips the relay, which releases the hammer, which smashes the flask and poisons the cat.

The point of the experiment is that radioactive decay is a quantum process. The chance of the atom decaying in any given period is known. Whether it has actually decayed (and thus whether the cat is alive or dead) is not—at least until the box is opened. The animal exists, in the argot of the subject, in a “superposition” in which it is both alive and dead at the same time.

The thing I struggle with, I guess, is Don’t the cat know if it’s alive? Now, what the cat know may be irrelevant for the purpose of the up until now hypothetical experiment. The point is that an object can be in more than one state at the same time. Or, at least it makes the equations add up.

Well-Fed Norwegians

September 29, 2009

Reporting on the Norwegian election, the Economist has an amusing description of Norway and Bergen (my hometown) in particular:

Norwegians […] seem a largely content bunch. Why wouldn’t they? A stroll through Bergen, Norway’s second city, reveals handsome, well-fed citizens who work in designer offices or high-tech fishing vessels, relax in art galleries and theatres, and enjoy pristine scenery. Education is free and health care is heavily subsidised.

The Net Gets Clouded

June 9, 2009

Last week, The Economist printed a leader on ‘cloud computing’ and some issues related to it. First, explaining ‘cloud computing’:

“Cloud computing”—the delivery of computer services from vast warehouses of shared machines—enables companies and individuals to cut costs by handing over the running of their e-mail, customer databases or accounting software to someone else, and then accessing it over the internet.

Cloud computing is a threat to the new-won openness from licenced software:

At the time, selling software to large companies was sometimes likened to drug dealing, because once a firm installed a piece of software, it had to pay a stream of licence fees for upgrades, security patches and technical support. Switching to a rival product was difficult and expensive. But with open-source software there was much less of a lock-in.

‘Cloud computing’ also threats to lock-in:

But customers risk losing control once again, in particular over their data, as they migrate into the cloud. Moving from one service provider to another could be even more difficult than switching between software packages in the old days. For a foretaste of this problem, try moving your MySpace profile to Facebook without manually retyping everything.

Luckily, I don’t have a profile with neither. I wonder what Weinberger has to say about this. (Not very much, it seems, but on his blog Everything is Miscellaneous he reports from a seminar on cloud computing; I couldn’t get the permanent link to work, but the entry comes up first if you search his blog for cloud computing).

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:

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!)

World Fish Production

March 4, 2009

Since I’m into fisheries economics, I found this chart from The Economist interesting. World fish production was 143.6 million tonnes in 2006, the highest ever recorded. Something doesn’t add up, however. According to the accompanying story, the wild fish catch levels off while the farmed portion of fish eaten by people is 47% and assumed to increase. The graph shows that farmed fish is leveling off. Also, they write that the catch in 2006 was 92 million tonnes, which obviously corresponds to the blue part of the 2006 column; they switched the colors of the columns.

Some of the comments to the story are interesting too. Derek L, for example, writes:

We’re all in this. There is no use blaming the Asians, the Norwegians, or the Spanish. Sure they happen to be the three biggest offenders, but anyone who buys anything but line caught wild fish should be slapped hard upside the dead for every purchase.

Not surprisingly, he’s a vegetarian. While I agree that industrial methods in fishing has problems, I also think that there are solutions and that we need to pursue them. Managed appropriately, I believe fish can help alleviate some of the problems presented by a growing population and declining biodiversity.

World Fish Production

UPDATE: If you’re interested in a fuller picture of world fish production in a longer time perspective, check out my follow up posts:

How much water does it take to make a cup of coffee?

March 2, 2009

You’re in for a surprise. According to The Economist, it takes 140 litres! Or so my printed edition says. According to their numbers, 1120 litres goes into making one litre of coffee, which translates into cups of 0.125 litres; I’m afraid my cups are bigger than that. Anyway, water is scarce many places on earth. Maybe I should switch to tea, which only requires 15 litres per cup, or even better, water.


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

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?


January 22, 2009

KAL Obama Cartoon

The KAL cartoon in this week’s issue of The Economist suggests that Obama will be torn apart by all the problems that he’s facing. He is facing a lot of problems; the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war in Gaza, the environmental crisis, the energy crisis, etc. What The Economist does not realize, it seems, is that reform, political change, and new regulations are much easier to execute in times of crisis. In ‘normal’ times, people are usually satisfied and (satisfied) people has a tendency to resist change. In critical times, however, more people are dissatisfied, more people see the need for change, and people are more willing to endure the pain that often accompany big changes.

All the problems may thus represent a great opportunity for Obama. He’ll probably be able to end one of the two big wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) in a reasonable fashion. If he’s able and lucky, he’ll get the U.S. onto a track towards a more sustainable energy system. New regulations in the banking sector may be necessary. The U.S. car makers need a new direction. There is so much to do. This is now. This is it. A grand moment (perhaps). Obama’s term in the White House can be a historic turning point for the American nation.

And, by the way, how bad can he really do? What can he do to make it very much worse? It’s like an inverse Wirkola.

The power of music

January 8, 2009


The Economist, of all possible publications, takes up a question I’ve been thinking about for years in the article Why Music? The article discusses several hypotheses regarding how and why music has emerged as an important feature of human culture. What purpose or function music had in early societies is still an open question. When you think of it, however, it should not surprise anyone that music is important to such an intelligent life-form as humans; the use of sound, singing and even dancing is quite common throughout the animal kingdom. That the modern human has developed rather abstract forms removed from the primitive uses of music and sound is neither a surprise. ‘Developed’ is a key word that I’ve not really thought much about when pondering the power of music. Maybe ‘evolved’ is a better word; given that music at some point became a central part of human culture evolution has made sure that music is ingrained deep into our genes. Simply enough, the most musically able humans have had an advantage when it comes to mating and consequently reproduction. Being musically able may also be a sign of good health, a quality one often looks for in a mate. Anyway, there seem to be a strong link between music and sex, at least in modern culture.

There is a different hypothesis, however. Music may sate an appetite that nature cannot; the (early) scarcity and luxuriousness of music lead humans to evolve a strong desire for it.

Singing is auditory masturbation […] Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.

The last section of The Economist article discusses one of the most mysterious things about music, namely its ability to manipulate our feelings. Certain sounds lead to sadness, other to joy; a feature composers and musicians have exploited for centuries. Scientists are only beginning to understand how music influence the brain and how emotions are formed. To cite the article again, “[…] many natural sounds evoke emotion for perfectly good reasons (fear at the howl of a wolf, pleasure at the sound of gently running water, irritation and mother-love at the crying of a child) […] music may be built on emotions originally evolved to respond to important natural sounds, but which have blossomed a hundred-fold.”

The article concludes, however, that nobody yet knows why people respond to music. A bit frustrating, of course, but it is also exciting that the question is open to discussion, and music may still be just magic!