Friday, March 30, 2012

Casting further doubt on Bob's "Heartland" arguments

Bob Murphy's whole spin on the Heartland / Peter Gleick affair really bothered me. At first, I just dove straight into the responses without doing a lot of back research, or even retracing my own steps in coming across the leak. Having done that now, I can safely say that I feel even more confident of my main assertions. In other words, I hold that Bob's article framed the climate debate in very misleading terms, while he was glibly uncritical in his analysis of 'Team Skeptic'. I also continue to hold serious doubts over claims that Gleick wrote the false strategy memo.

However, I want to leave such matters aside today and follow up on (what I take to be) the central theme of Bob's post. In particular, the idea that the "alarmist" blogosphere betrayed a major misunderstanding of the skeptic position via its  fixation on the bogus strategy memo. Or, in Bob's words: "[I]t reveals that these people really have no idea how their opponents on the climate issue actually view the world. So when they dismiss skeptics as having no legitimate arguments, it should make outsiders take pause."

In rebutting this claim, I'm going to divide up this so-called "alarmist" blogosphere into three categories, based on their coverage of the Heartland saga. By doing so, I aim to show that: (1) A number of very prominent pro-AWG blogs and websites didn't cover the leak at all, (2) Others did, but paid little or no attention to the fraudulent strategy memo, and lastly (3) Of the bloggers that did cite the memo, the vast majority were very quick to acknowledge its compromised nature and remove the offending content from their websites. These and some additional facts should seriously cast doubt on the notion that climate skeptics are more reasonable and judicious than their opponents.

This post continues under the fold...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bob Murphy on Heartland and Gleick

Bob Murphy is probably the one "Austrian" school blogger that I make a sincere effort to follow. I don't agree with everything -- or even most -- of what he writes, but Bob always manages to present his thoughts in an insightful and humorous way. More importantly, I think that he a) Genuinely tries to be fair to his intellectual opponents, and b) Actually has a good grasp of what "mainstream" economics is about (unlike some others). While I enjoy reading his blog, I generally shy away from commenting there... if for no other reason than I know how time consuming internet debates are. However, I decided to respond to his recent post on the Heartland Institute / Peter Gleick affair.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can have a gander at Bob's post to see how the whole thing went down. In short, water scientist and AGW proponent, Peter Gleick, claims to have received an anonymous package containing an apparent climate "strategy memo" from the Heartland Institute. Among other things, this document made some pretty wild claims about how to advance "Heartland's" skeptic message, including the money line that they should focus on strategies that would be "effective in dissuading teachers from teaching science". Bob claims that this suggestion is so obviously bogus that anyone reading it should immediately have twigged that it was a fake -- as, indeed, Heartland later confirmed.

Now, I'm not entirely sure if it was as blatantly obvious as all that... especially if you know anything about Heartland's very dubious history when it comes to scientific matters. However, Bob's point that the pro-AWG blogosphere should have been far more circumspect about the whole thing certainly deserves full consideration.[*] At the very least, let me emphasize that I am not disputing its fraudulent origins here. Regardless, we do know that Gleick subsequently obtained legitimate funding documents under false pretenses by impersonating a Heartland board member. These were then released together with the fake strategy memo. Unfortunately for Gleick, Heartland very quickly cried foul and he was eventually forced/motivated to come out as the source... effectively tarnishing his reputation as an ethical scientist in the process.

You can look through the comments under Bob's post (and the follow up) to see my extended thoughts, but my main points are this:

1. Criticizing Gleick for going under an false name to obtain private documents is very fair game. That so many pro-AWG climate bloggers initially failed to spot the "obvious" (Bob's words) forgery amongst the legitimate documents should also be cause for introspection by that camp. However, where was the equivalent moral outrage from the skeptic camp when the hacked "Climategate" emails were released? For all their indignation at Gleick's actions, Heartland itself was only too happy to cheer on these emails when this suited its agenda... despite their illegal origins and a raft of investigations and subsequent exonerations. It's also very disingenuous to pretend that a lot of skepticism isn't founded on distorted and manipulated use of science, because it certainly is. (Example A: Cherry-picking of evidence and selective quotation of the Climategate emails.)

2. Similarly, I feel that Bob is trying to paint this as some false dichotomy, where the debate only exists between measured skeptics and rabid alarmists. This simply isn't the case.

3. Despite his unethical behaviour, I don't think that Gleick wrote the false strategy memo. It just doesn't add up. As I wrote hereIf you wrote that document, you knew it was bogus. And if you knew it was bogus, you’d have to know that Heartland would protest loudly and immediately as soon as it was released. The truth would out fairly quickly; as indeed it did. [...]You don’t need a course in game theory to realise that [simply no good could] come from releasing a document that you know to be fake… Much less owning up to being that moronic in public. Gleick has his faults, but I certainly doubt that he is *that* dumb. There's a lot of uncertainty whichever way you cut it. However, my best guess for the source of this false document is that it was written by some anti-AWG person or group who wanted to trick Gleick into releasing bogus info and thereby undermine his credibility. (There are other possibilities too... though, again, none are completely satisfying.)

UPDATE: This is interesting. Running stylometric and textometric analysis on the fake strategy memo suggests that a Heartland staff member is more likely to have written it than Peter Gleick. (There's still a lot of uncertainty, but it does take consideration of the fact that certain sentences were apparently lifted from the authentic documents.). Not only that, but how did "Heartland-aligned blogger Steven Mosher" manage to finger Gleick so confidently before he came out as the leak? The plot thickens...
UPDATE 2: This analysis using the same software suggests the exact opposite that, i.e. that Gleick is the more likely candidate. Oh, the confusion!
UPDATE 3: Climate scientist James Annan thinks that textometric analysis is a complete waste of time. He also argues (quite plausibly I must admit) that Gleick *could* have been shortsighted enough to write the fake document himself: "Under pressure of time and under great stress, he wasn't thinking that clearly at this point..."
[*] Two important issues bear mentioning here. First, Bob's analysis relies heavily on the reporting of Megan McArdle, who was quick to urge caution about the legitimacy of the strategy memo despite her strong endorsement of AWG theory. Second, while most pro-AWG climate blogs have removed and distanced themselves from the controversial memo, the original outlet for the leak, Desmogblog, are sticking to their guns w.r.t. it's authenticity. (More from them here.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Quote of the day - Rebellion

After the previous post, I'm afraid it's unavoidable:

"If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Then, via the GF and her sorcerer's ways design awareness, take a look at this novel writing pad...

On censorship and misreading Ray Bradbury

Earlier today I read Bill Maher's op-ed in the NYT: Please Stop Apologizing. I deeply agree with his general point and am reminded of the way he put it -- rather more bluntly -- some months ago on his show Real Time: "Stop organizing life around the people who don't get the joke. Fuck them if they don't get [the] joke."


Ricky Gervais is often quoted as making the same point, but in a milder form: Just because someone is offended, doesn't make them right.

Going back to Maher's op-ed, I couldn't help but think, as I inevitably do when the topic of censorship comes up, of Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451. I read the book in high school and my abiding memory -- apart from a great opening quote and the central irony of firemen actually setting fire to things -- has been that it was meant as a warning against the dangers of censorship.

I'm surprised to learn, then, that Bradbury actually disputes this as being the major theme of the book. The Wikipedia page has a decent summary of things and also links to the following video clip from Bradbury's website:

In his own words: "I wasn't worried about freedom, I was worried about people being turned in morons by TV."

The Wiki entry also links to this LA Times article that was written after Bradbury was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. The following passage caught my eye:
[Bradbury] says the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state — it is the people. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television screens to indoctrinate citizens, Bradbury envisioned television as an opiate. In the book, Bradbury refers to televisions as “walls” and its actors as “family,” a truth evident to anyone who has heard a recap of network shows in which a fan refers to the characters by first name, as if they were relatives or friends. 
Bradbury imagined a democratic society whose diverse population turns against books: Whites reject Uncle Tom’s Cabin and blacks disapprove of Little Black Sambo. He imagined not just political correctness, but a society so diverse that all groups were “minorities.” He wrote that at first they condensed the books, stripping out more and more offending passages until ultimately all that remained were footnotes, which hardly anyone read. Only after people stopped reading did the state employ firemen to burn books.
AMUSING UPDATE: Someone should put Bradbury in touch with his publisher. I see that the book is still being billed as "The classic bestseller about censorship" on Amazon. OTOH, why fix something if it ain't broke?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

At least our benevolent Google overlords care

about their water footprint.

Like thermal-based power plants, data centers are thirsty bastards when it comes to cooling water. The above video comes via Forbes, who also inform us:
Google did not reveal exactly how much water the Douglas County data center consumes but in an e-mail company spokeswoman Kate Hurowitz said, “It varies from day to day, but a typical data center of this size can use hundreds of thousands of gallons a day.” 
I can barely say Chattahoochee River, let alone spell it, but they look like good, salt o' the earth folk to me. I'm happy if they're happy.
Peter Frost, executive director of the Douglasville-Douglas County Water and Sewer Authority, said Google is saving taxpayer money as the local government now does not have to treat as much wastewater. 
“That saves capacity for future homeowners as well as businesses,” he said in the video. [Thanks Pete, we saw the video! - Ed.]

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Libertarianism and the paleo diet - Natural or strange bedfellows?

I want follow up on the previous post by making a side observation on the paleo diet's marked popularity within libertarian circles -- especially anarcho-capitalists. Certainly, prominent libertarians like Lew Rockwell, Tom Woods and even Russ Roberts have gone "primal" in a very public sense.

Now, sure, this makes sense at the superficial level: It probably comes very naturally to many libertarians that they reject government-endorsed advice, take pride in swimming against the tide of mainstream thought, and so forth. Indeed, here is an article from LRC that openly flaunts the "ideological parallels" that underpin the libertarian-paleo connection. (Thanks Google!)

However, doing something simply because it feels "familiar" is likely to produce counterproductive results sooner rather than later. This is particularly likely to be true when it comes to endorsing heterodox thinking across unrelated topics.[*] After all, there's a reason why certain ideas tend to emerge as dominant over time: They explain the world around us better than the competing paradigms. (Obviously, this can change as we gain more knowledge. Science is a process after all and not an end result.)

More fundamentally, it seems to me that the underlying scientific approach of the paleo movement -- as outlined by Gary Taubes at least -- is at odds with much of what characterizes libertarian economic thought of the variety. I've had my say about the dangers of extreme a priorism before and still consider the rejection of empirical testing by some Austrians to be a completely nonsensical dead end. Indeed, the a prioristic approach is antithetical to the empirically-based scientific approach that Taubes so strongly advocates.

Given his popularity among these groups, I wonder what Taubes makes of this?

[*] Rockwell, in particular, seems prone to indulging just about every crank,conspiratorial, anti-science theory around. (They're all there, by the way. HIV/AIDS, evolution versus creationism, vaccines and autism, climate change... Even David Icke, alien technology and unlimited energy!)


Speaking of libertarian-based economic research, a good example of why experimental design is so important can be found by looking at Selgin, Lastrape and White's (2010) much-circulated paper, Has the Fed has been a failure?. The study itself is a great piece of historical writing that makes an important contribution to the literature. It also uses some fairly advanced empirical techniques such as GARCH time-series modelling. However, SLW don't provide a compelling counterfactual and, as such, their work can at best be described as a "pre-post" evaluation. Despite some overzealous reviews in libertarian circles then, this study was never meant to provide a definitive answer to the question that it asked. To their credit, SLW actually emphasize right at the outset (p. 1):
These findings do not prove that any particular alternative to the Fed would in fact have delivered superior outcomes: to reach such a conclusion would require a counterfactual exercise too ambitious to fall within the scope of what is intended as a preliminary survey. The findings do, however, suggest that the need for a systematic exploration of alternatives to the established monetary system, involving the necessary counterfactual exercises, is no less pressing today than it was a century ago. 

UPDATE: Dan Kuehn weighs in with some thoughts here.  He's not completely convinced that SLW heed their own warning...

The language of science: Paleo edition

I've developed an armchair interest in the so-called "paleo" diet. Among other things, my curiosity was piqued when Tim Noakes -- one of South Africa's most respected international experts in his chosen field of sports science -- came out with a series of very public endorsements... In the process, disavowing views that he had held and promoted for the bulk of his professional career.

"Hey, if it worked for Raquel Welch..."

What really makes me think that this paleo thing is at least worth considering, however, is the language that prominent paleos use when talking about the science underlying nutritional advice. A good example of this can be found in a column by Gary Taubes that was written in response to a much-publicized study by Willett et al. (2012), which purports to show that "eating red meat is associated with a sharply increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease". (HT: A bunch of people.) Taubes is a science writer and, near as I can tell, the intellectual popularizer of the paleo movement. Here he makes some great comments about what characterizes good scientific research:
Science is ultimately about establishing cause and effect. It’s not about guessing. You come up with a hypothesis — force x causes observation y — and then you do your best to prove that it’s wrong. If you can’t, you tentatively accept the possibility that your hypothesis was right. [...]Here’s Karl Popper saying the same thing: “The method of science is the method of bold conjectures and ingenious and severe attempts to refute them.” The bold conjectures, the hypotheses, making the observations that lead to your conjectures… that’s the easy part. The critical or rectifying episode, which is to say, the ingenious and severe attempts to refute your conjectures, is the hard part. Anyone can make a bold conjecture. (Here’s one: space aliens cause heart disease.) Making the observations and crafting them into a hypothesis is easy. Testing them ingeniously and severely to see if they’re right is the rest of the job — say 99 percent of the job of doing science, of being a scientist. 
This should all be drawing nods of approval from anyone trained in the scientific method... say, an economist interested in applied research (pick me!). Gathering a lot of data and observing correlations is only the start. What we really have to do is isolate causal effects and, crucially, establish a reasonable counterfactual. Taubes goes on to critique the Willett et al. study by describing how "associative" relationships are only good for generating hypotheses (i.e. about the causality of those relationships), which must then be tested using experimental settings. Willett and co. apparently don't concern themselves with this vital last step; hence the criticism.

In his article, Taubes concentrates on randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which are the design setting of choice for conducting medical experiments. Unfortunately, carrying out a meaningful experiment in an economic setting can be even more complicated. All too often, we simply aren't able to control for all the relevant factors, or simulate activity within an economy as and when we would want. That means that RCTs are pretty much off the table from the get-go.

Nevertheless, the good news is that empirical researchers have developed some powerful alternatives in the absence of the "laboratory" ideal. We use natural experimentsinstrumental variablesdifference-in-differences, and other study designs to simulate the laboratory setting and randomize treatment effects. Using these approaches helps us to be reasonably confident in answering many important economic and policy questions.[*] Say, does a minimum wage increase unemployment? (Much to my own surprise, the answer appears to be not really.) Or, how does crime respond to an increased police presence? (Well, according to this excellent study, a 10 percent increase in the police activity of London boroughs brought about a 3 percent drop in crime rates.)  If you click on the above links, you'll find an in-depth discussion of the particular circumstances and methodologies that allowed the researchers to treat their studies as experimental settings. These are just two examples, but they provide valuable insight into how good empirical economics is conducted in practice.

Of course, it should also be noted that economists and other social scientists are increasingly reliant on approaches that mimic the laboratory settings of natural scientists. Two of the most obvious candidates being experimental economics and field experiments. However, my main point in the above paragraph is about how we can still establish causation in the absence of such idealised, controlled settings.

Going back to the paleo diet, I'm still fairly agnostic about the whole thing despite my curiosity.[**]  I certainly don't know enough at this stage to confidently say whether Gary Taubes and co. are fundamentally correct in their views about nutrition. For all I know, the evidence may not be nearly as compelling as they make out. They may even be misrepresenting the views and research efforts of mainstream nutritional experts. However, I do know that Taubes talks about science in a way that makes sense to me. At the very least, that makes me think that he is someone worth listening to.
[*] Yes, it is true that definitive answers to some major economic questions remain more elusive. Ideology plays a big role as well, but the lack of an experimental setting partly explains why economists disagree on, say, how effective a stimulus package will be in reducing unemployment. 
[**] As my cunning nom de plume will testify to, dietary concerns are not high on my list of priorities. I don't feel particularly compelled to change my eating habits as of yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

International Energy Workshop in June

Sweet news.

I'll be presenting my paper on electricity prices and water scarcity at this year's International Energy Workshop, which will be held in...

Cape Town!

Come to Papa...

Great to know that I'll be heading home for a visit and even better to have my trip sponsored. GF will be coming too... provided the (slightly ridiculous) NOK3000 nightly accommodation allowance doesn't cause her to spontaneously combust with excitement.

The best thing about Norwegian prices?
They travel so well.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why do we pay tax on plastic bags?

Because here's why:

Forget the environment. This flagrant disregard for personal space must end!

Climate mitigation as a secondary benefit

But keep it quiet.

I spent some time last week with the Dutch economist, Johannes Bollen, who was visiting my university to present his research on the "co-benefits" of climate and air pollution policies. His basic argument is that you can go a long way towards meeting (global) climate goals simply by tackling (local) air pollution. In fact, his most up-to-date model suggests that rigorously addressing air pollution -- finding the optimal balance between health improvements and increased energy costs -- will get us 75 percent of the way towards the "2°C target" of the Copenhagen Accord.

Those results bear repeating: No global carbon tax or binding international treaties required. Just individual countries focused on cleaning up their own air pollution and we have already solved three-quarters of the climate problem. It sounds too good to be true and, yet, there's a growing body of evidence that points towards similar conclusions.[*]

For instance, you might remember an AER paper by Muller et al. (2011) that I mentioned a few months back. Their study made a big splash because, among other things, it showed that the price of coal-fired electricity should be several times higher than it currently is, given the adverse effects that local air pollutants (small particulates, SO2, NOx) have on human health and productivity. Again, nothing to do with climate effects; just accounting for the local health damages caused by dirty air.

It almost goes without saying that this promises to be a very important research area. The climate change narrative -- despite many excellent scientists and economists producing meticulous research -- has become bogged down by its own press and politics. We're at such an impasse that I simply can't see the necessary political will (and public buy-in?) to move us forward in any meaningful way over the next decade.

Focusing on local pollution, however, allows us to abstract from the most problematic areas of climate change; whether that is the unjustified/misplaced skepticism about the underlying science, or the longer-term uncertainties that make cost-benefit analysis of climate change mitigation difficult. From a purely economic perspective, it also frees you from the inherent problems associated with a global commons; such as competing incentives, inter-temporal conflicts, lack of enforcement, and free-rider problems. Those kinds of issues are dramatically simplified when you move from the global scale to the national scale, and narrow your time horizon.

The thing is, and while it's obviously great to kill two birds with one stone, I actually think that we should be very careful about emphasizing the climate link. Rightly or wrongly, policy geared towards tackling climate change is an extremely touchy subject. Yes, it's absurd to think that there is some grand communist plot at hand whenever someone mentions "cap-and-trade" or "carbon tax". (Also ironic when you consider that accounting for environmental damages is about putting an end to the socialized benefits that polluters enjoy at the expense of everyone else.) However, we have to acknowledge and operate within the practical confines of our world... which, more often than not, means making allowances for the irrationalities, whims and idiocies of our fellow citizens. And, yes, I'm sure the feeling is mutual.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Tackling local air pollution will bring about marked improvements in human health and economic welfare, both now and in the future. We also have good reason to believe that it will go a long way towards mitigating climate problems. Unfortunately, climate change is a subject that comes with a lot of baggage. I'd prefer to see the results without bringing up the baggage.

UPDATE: The British Medical Journal gets in on the action here.

[*] I haven't scrutinized Johannes' model in enough detail to proclaim his results as gospel truth. That being said, seeing his presentation and having talked through the underlying methodology certainly makes me confident that he has carefully covered his bases. I'll try to keep tabs on how his working paper develops or is revised over the coming months.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St Paddy's

I hope my Irish forebears would approve.

I make no apologies for this being my favourite version.

As I was going over the Cork and Kerry Mountains 
I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was countin' 
I first produced my pistol and then produced my rapier 
I said "Stand and deliver, or the devil he may take ya!" 

I took all of his money and it was a pretty penny 
I took all of his money and I brought it home to Molly 
She swore that she loved me, no never would she leave me 
But the devil take that woman, for you know she tricked me easy 

Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da 
Whack for my daddy-o 
Whack for my daddy-o 
There's whiskey in the jar-o

Being drunk and weary I went to Molly's chamber 
Taking my Molly with me, but I never knew the danger 
For, about six or maybe seven, in walked Captain Farrell 
I jumped up, fired my pistols, and I shot him with both barrels

Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da, ha, ya 
Whack for my daddy-o 
Whack for my daddy-o 
There's whiskey in the jar-o 

Now some men like a fishin', some men like the fowlin' 
Some men like to hear, to hear the cannonball a-roarin' 
But me, I like sleepin', `specially in my Molly's chamber 
But here I am in prison, here I am with a ball and chain!

Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da, ha, ya 
Whack for my daddy-o 
Whack for my daddy-o 
There's whiskey in the jar-o 
Whiskey in the jar-o

Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da 
Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da, hey 
Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da 
Musha rain dum-a-doo dum-a-da, ya

Friday, March 16, 2012

Chief EU science adviser on GMO

Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover is the recently appointed chief science adviser to the EU. The below excerpt concerning GMO is taken from an interview that she gave last month.

She makes three major points: (1) There is a fundamental need for a profit-driven agri-business, (2) Resistance to GMO is driven by emotion rather than any kind of scientific evidence, and (3) Anti-GMO lobby groups are partially to blame for the monopoly power that they so vehemently claim to oppose.
In terms of food security and safety – where do you stand on genetically modified products and what do you think of the EU’s rather dismissive stance to GM to date? 
“In my own area of science, molecular biology, I have used the GM technology for most of my research career and very helpful it has been in generating understanding about how biological and environmental systems work. So I know the power of the technology and the regulations we adopt in order to use it are very sensible and appropriate. I can also see that healthcare and our understanding of diseases has been revolutionised. There has been an unparalleled acceleration of our knowledge generation through the use of GM, which is a fantastic thing. 
“But people in Europe are anxious about the use of GM crops or animals and I have a concern about that because I don’t see the evidence base suggesting that there is substantial risk associated with it. Indeed, you could look at North America where they have been doing an experiment on our behalf for the last 15 years by growing and eating GM crops – and I don’t see over that period of time what negative impact it has had. There is a huge body of evidence, rightly so, looking at the risk of GM. People will ask me: ‘Is there no risk in eating GM crops?’ Well, of course, I would never say that as I am a scientist. What I would say is that whatever you eat for dinner this evening, there is a risk in eating that. There is risk associated with conventional agriculture, organic agriculture, any form of agriculture. 
“Agriculture has a big impact on our environment. The act of fertilising fields reduces the microbial diversity in the soil, but we don’t think that it has any long-term effects. We think it is something we need to do. There are implications for climate change and water spoilage issues so we need to do that with care. So around GM, let us examine the evidence. It doesn’t support the restricted activity in this area that we see. 
People may say that it is just big business that is making money out of this, but I can’t help thinking that is the job of big business. It is a capitalist system we work in – energy companies make money, transport companies make money. So do agricultural companies. I wish there was a better debate around GM, based on evidence and not emotion. And I wish we could look at risk versus reward. Some farmers say that if we introduce these particular types of GM seeds, then we are tied in to using particular chemicals to manage our crops. They don’t like that because they feel it is a monopoly to a particular company and they are uncomfortable about that.” 
But isn’t that part of the problem, these allegations that a small number of firms have a monopoly in the GM market? 
Possibly, the reason that [monopoly power] has happened is because of all the restrictions on GM. If I was running a small seed company, it is not an area I would be getting into because I couldn’t afford to do it. The lobbyists and pressure groups have almost been responsible for it by causing this withdrawal from evidence and this acceptance of the emotional argument. It really is not fair to use terms such as ‘Frankenstein foods’. We should be a bit more cautious in Europe here. By turning our backs on the evidence, there is a question over whether we are still going to be as competitive. We need to seriously look at GM crops when we tackle to the global problem of climate change and being able to feed the population of the world. It links into food security as well and we do need to think about that.”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The face of Gabriel

Jonathan Haid's comments on the spiritual nature of warfare reminded me of a passage in Captain Correli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. The character Mandras is something of tragic figure in the book. A simple fisherman who finds himself transformed by the horrors of war and unable to relate to the loved ones that await his return:
Once, near the Metsovon pass, in December, when it was twenty degrees below zero because there was no cloud, the Italians sent up a starshell. It exploded in a cascade of brilliant blue light against the face of the full moon, and the sparks drifted to earth in slow motion like the souls of reluctant angels. As that small magnesium sun hovered and blazed, the black pines stepped out of their modest shadows as though previously they had been veiled like virgins but had now decided to be seen as they are in heaven. The drifts of snow pulsed with the incandescence of the absolute chastity of ice, a mortar coughed disconsolately, and an owl whooped. For the first time in my life I shivered physically from something other than the cold; the world had sloughed away its skin and revealed itself as energy and light. 
It is my wish to get well so that I can go back to the lines and experience, perhaps for only one more time, that immaculate moment when I saw the face of Gabriel in an instrument of war. 
Quite beautiful.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Great TED talk on the evolutionary basis for religion

..., spirituality and co-operation by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. My economist self was particularly interested in his thoughts on free-riding. The rest of me was particularly interested in the discussion as a whole.

It's curious to reflect on the things that give meaning and purpose to our lives. On that note, I've often wondered whether the appeal of atheism would diminish if there were no believers to convince otherwise?

UPDATE: Haidt has just published a new book that is getting rave reviews.


Some of you may have noticed that I've changed the previous post -- on Invisible Children and James Inhofe -- around a bit since it was first published. I wrote it up in quite a rush and, looking over it today, realised that my motivations were perhaps a bit cryptic. Hopefully it reads a bit better now.

Revisiting and tweaking old posts on this blog is an occasional habit of mine. I've never tried to change the fundamental meaning of any posts, or cover my tracks if someone calls me out in the comments. Rather, it's usually that I read something and think "Who wrote this terrible mess? Do they even speak English?" So, blame OCD, but I inevitably tend to think that I can improve my writing after it's already out there for the world to see.

This is frustrating because I'm a terribly slow blogger as it is, and coursework leaves very little time for anything else. I don't know how other people doing graduate studies manage to keep up regular blogging activity with the workload. I suspect that the answer will reflect unfavourably on my mental faculties, so probably best not dwell on that issue...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The real reason to be wary of Kony 2012

With the internet abuzz about Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" viral campaign, it was predictable that there would be some blow-back from critics. The most compelling criticism from my perspective is that Kony 2012 offers an extremely simplified message that is largely disconnected from the problems that presently plague Uganda.

In its own small way, I believe that such issues are laid bare by IC's vocal endorsement from James Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator who features prominently in the viral video.[*] Call me crazy, but I don't think that someone who has campaigned on the discriminatory platform of "God, gays and guns" is particularly well suited to act as spokesman for Uganda's current problems... Which -- more than the unspeakable acts of the now exiled Joseph Kony -- include massive discrimination and violence perpetrated against gay people.

Non-partisan support is something that we should almost always strive for. However, I am troubled by the fact that IC have unquestionably accepted and advertised Inhofe's endorsement, even though he has a record of overt bigotry. I suggest that IC might want to think a little more critically about the signals that they are sending to the Ugandan people, given the country's struggles against rabid homophobia.

UPDATE: Well, it seems that the case against James Inhofe's moral leadership on Ugandan issues is even stronger than I first guessed. A group of evangelical US politicians and lobbyists -- Inhofe foremost among them -- have been documented as providing advice to David Bahati, and implicitly inspiring him to introduce Uganda's infamous anti-Homosexual Bill (aka "Kill the Gays Bill") that I linked to above. Disturbing stuff.

[*] I've previously discussed Inhofe here if you are interested. Notably, his demanding role as the US Senate's climate change denier-in-chief... a hotly contested title if ever there was one. (A sadly amusing postscript to that saga here.)


Disclaimer -- I wrote this post, and especially the title, with my tongue pressed angrily against my cheek. Joseph Kony undoubtedly deserves to face justice for his crimes. If this Kony 2012 campaign achieves nothing else, it's still good to know that millions of people around the world have now learnt who he is and understand the nature of his barbarism. Still, I think that this illustrates how simplified messages can distract from the real issues in development; a sadly recurring theme in field. For a nice, short summary, see Chris Blattman.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cover Thursdays - James Morrison edition

When James Morrison first came on to the scene, I was distinctly of the "meh" opinion. His debut album Undiscovered was everywhere I looked and, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why. On the mediocre side of average IMHO.

Bear in mind that a) I was living in London at the time, and b) the Brits have a singular ability to foster contempt among non-Brits for local artists and sportsmen as a result of their incessant patriotic promotion.[*]

That's not to say that this was bad period for me on the musical front. The music scene in London is pretty amazing and I was left almost frantic with the notion that I could see a superb live act every other night. (Coming from South Africa, this was like being on another planet...) The general Brit "sound" around that time was also pretty great, if I think back: The Fratellis, Editors, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Amy Winehouse, Kasabian, Kooks, Razorlight, etc etc

But not James Morrison, whom seemed to be empty pop masquerading as thoughtful troubadour... and he hasn't done much to grow on me since. Having said that, while I don't normally like the music he makes, I do recognize that Morrison has a pretty unique voice with some real soulful quality to it.[**] In other words, he's exactly the type of candidate that can produce a good cover.

I still have mixed feelings about including him here, among the -- coveted! -- ranks of Cover Thursdays alumni at Stickman's Corral. However, hopefully you'll enjoy these two tracks that I've selected for your listening pleasure this fine Thursday. Both are acoustic numbers that offer Morrison a platform to showcase his smokey pipes and perhaps win us naysayers over...

1) "Man In The Mirror", originally by a certain Michael Jackson:

2) "Gangster's Gangsta's Paradise", originally by two-hit wonder, Coolio:

Yes, no, maybe?

[*] Tennis being an obvious "beneficiary" of this counterproductive approach. Poor ol' Tim Henman never stood a chance (even if he had been born with a personality). Andy Murray was pretty much goosed from the get go as well (even if he hadn't been born with a cactus lodged in his colon).

[**] Full disclosure: I did quite enjoy his last single, "I won't let you go". This acoustic version is certainly impressive and, if the music doesn't grab you, then the facial expressions just might do it...