Thursday, January 31, 2013

I was Ayn Rand's lover

Posted this on twitter a few minutes ago, but I've just stumbled on the best piece of satirical writing that I have read in ages: I was Ayn Rand's lover by George Saunders.

Seriously, and while I usually prefer 57 page monologues like any red-blooded male who likes his philosophy dispensed in the guise of fiction, you really should take five minutes out of your day to read this little gem. A snippet:
Not many people know this, but I was once Ayn Rand’s lover. That’s right. The year was 1974. I was a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old, she was a prominent international author—and we were lovers. By “lovers” I mean: we were constantly raping each other. Well, first there’d be a long speech. Usually by her. Then we’d gaze deeply at one another, and our souls would begin speaking the only language a man and a woman ever need: the language of mutual self-benefit.
And, after our poor hero gets jilted for a younger, stronger protégé of greater conviction (Paul Ryan!):
[T]here I was, back in my sock-smelling bedroom, listening to “Photographs and Memories” by Jim Croce, feeling like a total dork. Or, as Ayn might have said, a “parasitic whining parasite.” 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review - Economics Evolving (Agnar Sandmo)

Following an email exchange with Dan Kuehn and Jon Catalán, I decided that it was finally time to write up a review for Agnar Sandmo's "Economics Evolving" (which I have been punting for some time). Full disclosure is that I know Agnar personally and think that he is a tremendous economist. That said, I started his book before I had actually spoken much to him and honestly believe that I judged it on nothing else but the merits of its content.

And with that, here is the review which I have just posted on Amazon:


In his masterful Wealth & Poverty of Nations, economic historian David S. Landes opens with a quip that "Geography has fallen on hard times." I have often wondered whether the same might said of history -- at least when it comes to cataloguing the development of economic thought. Despite the efforts of Landes and co. (who arguably tend to focus more on events rather than thinkers), this subject is sorely absent from the modern economic curriculum.

Agnar Sandmo's excellent Economics Evolving (EE) will hopefully go some way towards remedying that. The book is a compelling history of economic thought, told through the lives and works of the key figures that have shaped the field. The text is lucid and jargon free, so that even complex ideas are conveyed with a clear simplicity. My impression is that any lay person with an interest in economics could pick up the book and gain a deep understanding of the subject. (I personally happened to read EE while doing my graduate studies in economics and it really helped to keep the overarching ideas clear in my head. This can be surprisingly difficult at times, when getting wrapped up in the mathematics or technical arguments of a particular theory might hinder you from seeing the wood for the trees. The concise description of various concepts -- from Walrasian Equilibrium to growth theory -- thus provided a welcome foil to the analytical rigour required by my core grad courses.)

Each chapter or subsection opens with an brief biography of the featured economist(s). These provide valuable context to the overall discussion and are typically interspersed with interesting vignettes and anecdotes. One of my favourites occurs on p. 90, where Sandmo reproduces a letter from John Stuart Mill to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The former is enquiring after the 3rd and 4th volumes of Hooke's Roman History, having "recapitulated" the 1st and 2nd volumes. Sandmo points out that this seemingly unremarkable correspondence between two leading intellectuals of the time was actually written when Mill had only just turned six! Mill's almost impossible precocity serves as the ideal backdrop for describing his many later contributions -- in both economics and philosophy -- during the pages that follow.

Sandmo, a fairly eminent economist in his own right, is never less than evenhanded in his discussion of the key figures and thinkers that have shaped the development of economics. His writing is admirably free of ideological bias and I appreciated not being able to necessarily tell which side the author would personally lean to on different economic questions. That is not to say that he is never critical, however, as EE succinctly highlights the faults in many arguments and theories. (E.g. In an interesting chapter on the economic theories of Karl Marx, we are told how a falling rate of profit is a supposedly inevitable feature of capital accumulation, and how this in turn would eventually lead to the entire system collapsing. Sandmo counters (p. 133): "Each element in his chain of reasoning may be criticized", and convincingly proceeds to do exactly that.)

Of course, not everyone's favourite economist can feature prominently (or even at all) in a book that is designed above all to be concise and readable. However, I think it is fair to say that the major players are all covered in admirable depth, as well as numerous others. I particularly enjoyed the sections on the classicists (Malthus, Say, Ricardo, and Mill) and the forerunners to the "Marginal Revolution" (Gossen, Dupuit, Cournot, and Thünen). These are the kinds of tremendously important figures that are normally relegated to the footnotes in most modern economic curricula, and it was refreshing to get a full sense of their contributions and beliefs. I found it intriguing, for instance, to see how well they had often anticipated later developments in the science and continued to have relevant insights for our own economic circumstances of the present day. (It was equally interesting to get a sense of how their views have either been distorted or successfully reproduced by later thinkers.)

In summary, this book is a wonderful companion to any student of economics, and many others besides. I can easily recommend it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A journey through the seasons

After my previous Norway bump, here are two videos that seem appropriate.

Both are taken from a new documentary by the Norwegian national broadcaster, NRK, that showcases some of the country's breathtaking scenery. From the NRK website:
The Nordland Railway (‘Nordlandsbanen’ in Norwegian) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The railway is 729 kilometers long, and passes [through] spectacular scenery, varying from the fjord area around Trondheim in the south, through beautiful valleys, over mountains and along fjords before crossing the Arctic Circle at Saltfjellet and descending down to the coastal city of Bodø.
PS - The band from the first video, Fleur de Lis, could be characterised as a heavier version of Sigur Rós and are well worth checking out.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thinking of doing a PhD?

Well, then consider doing it in Norway.

I've quietly promoted this line a few times before at The Corral. Still, and alongside the regular factors for choosing a postgrad programme, here are some perhaps-not-so-obvious points for consideration.

1) Salary. In Norway, a PhD is viewed as a job and you are paid accordingly. The salary is designed to be competitive with the nearest outside option; in this case, the expected earnings of a recent Master's graduate. The starting salary for PhD scholars is currently -- i.e. early 2013 -- a very healthy 416,300 NOK (+/- 75,000 USD) per annum. This is easily the most generous figure that I have seen for a doctoral programme anywhere around the world.

2) Funding. Yes, just a short step away from the previous point, but important to emphasise the distinction nonetheless. In addition to a full I.T. budget (incl. new laptop, secondary monitor, etc.), my classmates and I receive an "annum" of around 5,000 NOK (900 USD) p.a. to spend on books, iPads, software, organisational memberships, accessories... Pretty much whatever we want as long as it has some potential benefit to our research. And then we also have an annual allotment for attending conferences and workshops of around 30,000 NOK (5,500 USD). Again, this is all on top of the regular salary.

3) Data. Especially for those interested in doing empirical work. You will be hard pressed to find a country that has better data on just about any subject you can imagine. (This is true for the Scandinavian countries in general, which is why you so often see studies that draw their findings from this region.) A number of my colleagues are doing work that would be almost impossible to do anywhere else, simply because they would struggle to find comparable data.

4) Exchange. I can't speak for every school (or area of study), but we are strongly encouraged to spend at least a semester, preferably two, abroad. The guys ahead of me have typically gone to top departments in the U.S. (or in Europe). Alongside the obvious benefits brought on by collaborating with people from different universities, these research stays actually have a financial attraction as well. You are taxed less and also receive an extra monthly stipend to help meet costs while overseas. (An irony, of course, since your living costs will very likely be lower!)

5) Language. The standard of spoken and written English is more-or-less excellent across Scandinavia. Moreover, English is the default "tribal language" in the Norwegian academic setting. That's not to say that you won't benefit from learning the local language, but it does mean that you can slot into the system immediately and without any hassles.

6) Lifestyle. There's no point in denying it: Doing a PhD is hard. The workload in first year or two is particularly pretty brutal and your social life will be but a shadow of its former glory until you are done with the core curriculum. That said, there are degrees and cultures of stress, and the Norwegian attitude to creating a healthy work-life balance is hard to match. You've probably seen those international rankings of lifestyle measures and happiness, which invariably place Norway and the other Scandinavian countries at the top. Of course, not everything is simply "better" here and there are a number of things that undeniably frustrate me as a foreigner. The weather can also be pretty harsh and miserable at times; especially for someone whose youth was spent frequenting the many fine beaches of Cape Town. However, even this brings new lifestyle opportunities that I, personally, would not otherwise have had the chance to experience: I've soaked up the midnight sun, hiked in incredible landscapes, bathed in the fjords, chased the Northern Lights in husky sleds... You get the picture. (And the melodrama.)

And on that note, I must be off. I have a skiing date with the athletic Miss LB. Time to hit the slopes!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A note on the Vegter review

I've been pleasantly surprised by how popular my review of Ivo Vegter's "Extreme Environment" has proven. I initially thought that only a handful of people would care to read something of that length, but less than a week after it was first posted, and it has already garnered around 400 unique page views. (Small change for some, but a decent figure for a humble grad student blogging in relative obscurity.)

While the reception has generally been positive, several commentators appear puzzled by the fact that I still come out with a qualified endorsement after highlighting (what I perceive to be) a number of obvious problems in the book. Some quick responses:

1) As I pointed out in my review, despite being highly critical at times, there are parts of the book that I thought were very good. These sections could prove useful to informing public debate.

2) I wrote my review in stages. The first part (which generally covers the better, first half of the book) was written just before I flew back from holiday. The remainder came from notes that I made whilst reading on the plane, and just after I arrived back. I think this helped to keep the good and bad separated in my mind, as well as contributing -- I hope -- to a more evenhanded review.

3) Similarly, the problem with books of this type is that they tend to be very polarising. I don't think it does justice to the relevant issues if the whole of a book is judged by its weakest parts and summarily dismissed. 

4) Eirik K. asks whether I would be "so forgiving when reading an academic paper?" The short answer to this question, naturally, is no. I don't think this is a fair comparison, though. The margin for error is substantially tighter for journals and academic studies. Moreover, a scientific paper will typically have a fairly narrow focus, while a general interest book like EE covers a much broader spectrum. (To be sure, in the purely hypothetical case where I was asked by Ivo's editor to referee the book before publication, I would have asked for significant revisions. Chiefly to the chapter concerning climate change -- which in its current state would be better omitted altogether -- but in other areas as well.)

Too good not to share

File this under the "Unintended hilarity" section. 

Via Ryan Coetzee, I see that South Africa's beloved Minister of Sport and Recreation, Mr Fikile April Mbalula, MP, has written what can only be described as the most exquisitely verbose press release of the year.

It seems a crime not to reproduce the statement in full, but I'll just give you the first third as a taster. Before doing so, however, some additional context is that the national football side (Bafana Bafana) has just recorded it's first victory in African Cup of Nations. Not only that, but in doing so the team scored its first goals in about four games.
Statement By the Minister of Sport and Recreation South Africa, Mr Fikile April Mbalula, MP, On the Occasion of the Media Conference to Congratulate Bafana Bafana: 
We stand here this morning as a proud and confident nation imbued by the resounding thrashing, walloping and gregarious defeat of the Angolan national football Team in Ethekwini by the our astonishing and call-heading warriors Bafana- Bafana, the crown jewel of the nation of the most popular sport in our country and the world over. 
Like true warriors and combat ready soldiers, our national Team turned the misfortune of being denied goals in the warm up matches and first game versus Cape Verde [Population 500,585 - Ed.] into a promising and pending festival of goals during our last game against Angola. You the people of South Africa headed the clarion call: 
To support our Team in the spirit and dictum of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Seaparankwe) our national hero and international icon when he said that leaders and winners show the stripes of their true colours not in conditions of easiness but it is through difficult circumstances that a real leader emerges and survive. As we have come to know and acknowledge that social condition throw up concrete circumstance from which leaders emerge and chart a new a path into the future. 
To this day we know that the nation was disappointed and dismayed that Bafana Bafana were not resolute and determined in our quest for excellence and for quality and thus succumbing to foreign tendencies of negative media reporting and being bullied on the social networks. Not that they were not patriotic, but, it was a sign of not accepting the fact that in sport there is lose, draw or win. But your characteristic of a leap of hope and faith in our national team and never die spirit gave rise to our deep understanding and personification of the adverb that - "birds of the same feather flock together" and which propelled our Team to the 2 - 0 victory in our last game against Angola. 
After all you remain a constant reminder to the national Team never to abandon a sport code that is an oasis of hope, livelihood and symbol of nationhood to us and billions of people around the globe. 
To this extent your wish and hope that Bafana Bafana must win came through two days ago and for the reason that prompted Chief Albert Luthuli to pronounce at his life time and age that the Tempo is quickening- Asijiki, Siyaya phambili.!!! The Cup will be hoisted aloft by President Jacob Zuma and will be delivered to our people as a symbol and meaningful contribution to the quest for peace and unity of purpose amongst Africans here at home and in the Diaspora.
I score that an 11 out of ten for enthusiasm. I am also very pleased that, like an good ANC cadre, our dear minister does pass up on the chance to make reference to Nelson Mandela. Genuinely loved and admired as he is, I'm sure even Madiba would be bemused by the never-ending appeals to his authority (and the tenuous circumstances that these usually involve).

As a final aside, I've little doubt that Mr Mabula's dictionary was in flames by the time he finished composing his statement. But... "gregarious defeat"? In the spirit of Inigo Montoya:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review - Extreme Environment (Ivo Vegter)

Extreme Environment (hereafter EE) is a book written by South African journalist, Ivo Vegter. I have mentioned Vegter before on this blog and he generously arranged for me to be sent a free copy of EE after I offered to review it in an online discussion. Given this, and seeing as some of other reviews that I have read are disappointingly superficial, I decided to provide a chapter-by-chapter overview and criticism. I hope that you'll excuse the subsequent length of this post in exchange for some added thoroughness. (If not, a condensed version of this review can be found here.)

The major premise of EE is straightforward: Environmentalists are guilty of making grossly exaggerated claims and the green movement should in general be regarded with extreme scepticism. I fully endorse the more measured observation of the book jacket, which is that we should be just as cautious of the emotive rhetoric of environmentalists, as we are of corporate spin. EE expands on this dictum with varying degrees of success and some parts of the book are undoubtedly more convincing (and fairly presented) than others. It should be said that Vegter is not immune to moments of unfounded hyperbole himself, stating as early on as page 3 that the car could not have been invented in today's world, because it "would never have passed modern safety and environmental rules". (Talk about exaggeration!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Unintended consequences

During the last year, South Africa has been in the throes of violent upheaval in the mining industry. Most prominently the "Marikana massacre", which received widespread coverage in the international press. The story is a complex one involving increased tension between mining companies and their employees, warring trade union factions, and growing political dissent in the ANC's so-called Tripartite Alliance with the SACP and COSATU. Of course, the stuttering global economy provides a backdrop to all of this as profitability margins have been inexorably squeezed.

The strike action has also spilled over into the farming sector. While the mining industry is located in the far north of the country, the farm strikes have been concentrated in the Western Cape and are therefore much closer to home. The town where my parents live is in the heart of the Cape winelands and the bulk of local industry is very closely linked to farming activity. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, my father is an agronomist and has spent his working life involved in the agricultural sector.

The farm strikes have been much less violent than those in the mining sector, but have still  incurred dramatic economic costs. Stock worth hundreds of millions of Rands has been burned and lost to malicious action. Local trade union leaders have called on international consumers to boycott South African produce until their demands on are met. Quite how all of this is supposed to benefit farm workers and alleviate unemployment is beyond me. (I fear it is beyond the people calling for the boycott.)

One of the most frustrating aspects of these events is that the strikers themselves are not permanent farm staff. They are predominantly seasonal workers and, in even worse cases, simply unemployed people that have been bused in from the cities by venal and opportunistic political leaders. (As some important background, the Western Cape is the only province governed by the opposition DA. The ever gracious and democratically-minded ANC Youth League has responded to this situation not by improving its own service delivery or reconsidering its political manifesto, but by promising to make the province "ungovernable".)

Speaking to some farming friends during my recent trip home, I was left with the distinct impression that they have had enough and will be looking to move into full mechanisation. The ongoing labour issues impose not only higher costs, but also a unnerving atmosphere of unpredictability and uncertainty. Nature waits for no man and an unreliable workforce is one thing that farmers can ill afford; a missed irrigation or spraying session can significantly alter your chances of enjoying a good harvest. One farmer told me that he believes the only way forward for the region is to follow the "Californian model" of grape and wine production, which relies on very little human labour in bringing goods to market.

Going back to mining, the platinum giant Amplats this week announced that it would impose severe cost cutting and restructuring measures to maintain to the profitability of its local operations. Government officials were reportedly "shocked" by the move. Doubtless they are the only ones taken by surprise. With the exception, of course, of our myopic friends in the trade unions.

I'll leave the final word to another friend, also a farmer as it happens, who writes on Facebook:
After months of costly strikes, Amplats will close four shafts and cut 14000 jobs. Massive victory for the labour movement against the forces of imperialism and capitalism. Have no doubt that AMCU and NUM will now provide financial assistance to those 14000 workers and their families, after having pawned them for their blood, union fees and finally, their entire source of income.

Monday, January 14, 2013

As promised...

I've written a summary of my paper on electricity prices and water scarcity over at the Recon Hub. I hope regular readers of this blog will feel inclined to take a look and let me know what they think.

The opening gambit goes like so:
We’ve all seen images like the one above. Indeed, they have become something of a recurring and iconic feature in the climate change debate: The massive towers of a power station stand out ominously against the skyline as thick plumes of CO2 pour into the atmosphere. 
Except, of course, that those are just cooling towers. And that “smoke” billowing out at the top isn’t CO2, which is invisible after all. (You don’t see anything when you breathe out.) What we’re actually seeing here is water vapour.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Back in business

Having said goodbye to family and friends after a wonderful holiday in South Africa, and then endured a 20-plus hour trip (two transit stops) back to Norway with minimal sleep, yesterday turned out to be a surprisingly good one for yours truly. First, I discovered that I had successfully passed the last of my mandatory PhD courses and, then, that my paper on electricity prices and water scarcity had been accepted for publication in Land Economics. And it turns out that I got a salary raise. Yeah, baby...

The paper (a slightly older version of which is available here) is my first proper publication and LE is a good level 2 scientific journal on the Norwegian ranking system, so I'm pretty chuffed. The revise and resubmit process itself has been both an enlightening and frustrating experience. Our two anonymous referees had a tendency to mix very insightful comments with some more pedantic and confusing ones. However, I imagine that is something every author feels and is most likely compounded by the time it takes to make even seemingly simple changes. There is no doubt that the paper has been much improved by the reviewers' input and I'm grateful for that.

I'll try to write up a short summary of it on the Recon Hub blog within the next few days ... And hopefully get some other stuff up here at The Corral as well, once I catch up with what's been happening in the blogosphere over the last few weeks.