gubbins

Don't cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it

"The chances of the government admitting that austerity has been a failure are precisely zero. That would mean telling voters that all the sacrifices since 2010 had been in vain." (Larry Elliott)

"Don't cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it." (Banksy)

There's a school of thought that says ideas are like Soufflés - if you don't give them just the right care when you're baking them, letting the scaffold form as it should, they collapse in a gooey mess. I used to bake a lot of this kind of thing. I didn't get better, I just stopped trying - too ashamed of all the sad little sticky puddings. But I figure I'm a bit older and, if not wiser, more cautious now. Just throw some stuff out there, poke things a bit and see what happens. Do the thing and all that. Nothing may come of any of it, but then nothing will come of nothing if nothing's all that's done. Profound. So that said...

I've got this notion that it should be possible to show how the economy works in a way that's both robust and accessible. I don't mean accessible just from a three minute glance, infographics-style. But it should be possible - for example - to drag otherwise murky arguments about austerity out into the light where you can test views based on what's actually known, obvious, possible. You'd aim for reducing the range of ambiguity to something much less overwhelming. Expanding the little pool of clarity into something much more vivid.

The reason this draws me in is pretty simple: the 'sacrifices' Larry Elliott talks about - they're almost impossible to grasp. The things that have happened, are happening right now, to people, institutions, all apparently to right a listing economy - there seems to be a very strong case this was all totally unnecessary, literally counter-productive and utterly wrong-headed. And the arguments aren't all that abstruse - it shouldn't be that hard to mark out their boundaries. (Hah - note that for later.)

I'm not naïvely imagining there's some process of alchemy that can transform how the austerity debate is seen (or macro more generally). There's a whole bunch of people that are obviously inaccessible to what I'm talking about, not least those ideologically opposed to the idea of any state action who've seen the crisis as an opportunity. They'll continue to push whatever sophistry furthers that aim, of course. There are also people on both sides who Just Know and nothing could possibly convince them otherwise. (I like to pretend I'm not one of those, though don't we all?) Others won't have anything to do with quant of any kind, especially economics-plus-quant: for them, it's an elite-wielded tool propping up power. That's one to come back to - I have some sympathy for this but it's confusing the tool and the user.

That leaves a whole swathe of people who can meet and converse, given the right space and tools. Have no truck with the convenient lie about post-truth. The global response to Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord shows it's the idea of post-truth that's the danger - something well understood by regimes like Russia. (Paul Mason nails this brilliantly in his stage take on 'why it's kicking off everywhere'.)

I'm not saying there are always right or wrong economic answers, but you should be able to set out what the spread of rightywrongyness looks like. And if I'm talking about a tool, this would mean transparency in how it's built too. Code would need to be accessible, assumptions up-front, well commented and explained. The way models are perceived (even by many modellers) leaves a lot to be desired - I'd see this kind of open process as a chance to talk about that as well. It couldn't be something you went away for years to build - the building process itself would need to be a conversation. It couldn't be - initially at least - some single overarching model (h/t Jon Minton).

But that conversation would need a starting point, which brings me back to the beginning of this post. There's an argument that I should wait until I've got a little working example - I know what the first simple dynamic is I want to look at - but I'm bored of waiting for that. I just want to put something out there to taunt me with past versions of myself who'd annoy friends by trying to drag them into grand visions that I had absolutely no way of ever accomplishing. I think I might have learned how to start small and let things change as they hit reality. We'll see I guess. Hmm, just realised the Banksy quote I meant for austerity applies to me too.

Great recession caused the dirty oil boom? (plus bonus self-indulgent whinge about writer's block)

Here's something (PDF) I didn't know: monetary easing (QE and near-zero or even real-terms-less-than-zero interest rates) might have been responsible for the dirty oil boom and the subsequent price drop. (That's via a little summary of Helen Thompson's book).

It does also make the 'recessions always correlate to oil price hikes' claim you'll see being made by people I might call oil determinists. As she does here, even the recent mortgage credit related crash looks like an oil-triggered thing through this lens. Others, however, see e.g. the 70s oil crisis being made much worse by governments whacking the steering wheel in the wrong direction in reponse to what happened.

But this story about how massively expensive dirty fuel exploitation got going makes sense - and fits with the kind of up-down pattern we can probably expect without anything to counter it. Though I'm trying to picture how that ends and can't - if, for example, renewables continue to undercut fossil fuels, demand for them drops, their price drops... and what's the new equilibrium? How do you eventually see the end of an old energy source, as we have several times before?

Dunno. But I'm going to post this anyway, and try and post anything else interesting I find, as all I've been doing recently is writing abortive chunks of whinge about how I can't write any more. The first thing I need to do to fix that is (a) post little things like this even when this new 'you don't know enough about this' warning light I seem to now have courtesy of academia starts blinking in the cockpit and (b) even when I write horrific sentences like this, still post it because that's better than filling folders full of words that never get posted (well, maybe not for anyone reading...) and (c) work up slowly to the larger topics I keep on trying and failing to find a way to articulate.

I do want to write about what's happened to the writing (and thinking etc) because there's something important there. But it needs working up to and I'd feel better about doing it if I've got the wheel going a little under its own inertia.

The short of it seems to be: I used to love writing but I'm not sure a love of writing can survive in academia. No, correction: not sure my love of writing can. If there was some way for me to find a happy marriage of my own needs and what's required of me... but there, starting to whinge about it, I'll save that for later.

Let's see if it's another year to the next post.

Questions from Rothamsted

A Feynman quote, via Robert Wilson: 'The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.'

This weekend's protest at Rothamsted has reduced a labyrinthine issue to a single outcome: trashed, or not trashed? In our house, we're clear that GM itself is a technology like any other. Fire can cook food, keep you warm or burn your house down. Every single tech we've discovered since has followed much the same pattern. The critical factor is us. (update via Robert: "Related Feynman anecdote. A buddhist monk said to him 'the keys to the gates of heaven also open the gates of hell'.")

But that Feynman quote makes me want to spend a little time picking apart my own assumptions. Rather than actually, you know, do that, I thought I'd just get the questions down while they're sloshing about.

  • Is lab-and-field-trial based plant science too centralised to provide the adaptive outcomes our food systems we'll need in the next fifty years? (I'll get on to that one first, going back to the whole 'adaptive landscape' thing and bouncing off the IAASTD's take on biotech.)
  • Is GM technology in any way a unique risk, comparing to other plant tech (that, for decades, has included some pretty brutal radiative and chemical genome-mashing to introduce variation). Is that a plus-point for GM or just an indictment of all industrial plant science? (And impact-wise, don't forget to compare to more basic plant-based stupidity displayed way-back when. 'Splendid invasiveness' indeed - unlike any wheat cultivar I've heard of thus far.)
  • Are the crop-trashers actually right to claim - as Jenny Jones intimates - that you can't extract plant science from the corporate system? ("This research project at Rothamsted may be publishing its work openly, but we can't escape the fact that it is part of a wider approach to agriculture that is no use to poor farmers and to our future food security until we deal with the commercial problems.") Or as Simon Lewis puts it, 'Perhaps it's important to ask of scientific experiments: is this the science of the 1%. Or the 99%'. Relatedly, what private agri-companies and organisations are doing especially good things, and what marks them out?
  • Lastly: have the geekmob been manipulated - Theoden to a shadowy - network's - Wormtongue? Have we been played like a cheap pianola, to quote Douglas from Cabin Pressure? Unsurprisingly, I currently think 'no'. This looks like verdict by innuendo. But there's a bigger problem: how to think about, and deal with, networks of influence? The net is perfect for producing webs of insinuation from connections, many often the product of single 'enthusiasts'. But then, it's a networked world. How the bejeesus can science and policy function in that miasma? It is also much more personal, though: in situations where a choice has to be made, maybe we don't make the right one. Feynman is right for science as for anything else; gotta do our best to make sure we're not fooling ourselves. But how? Is lack of dialogue between sides over Rothamsted more apparent than real? Is it just the world we live in now: self-reinforcing ghettoes? If ways are found to move this conversation forward between currently opposed groups, perhaps something positive will come from all this. A reason to engage the Green Party, not withdraw?

An appeal from Rothamsted Research: don't destroy our crop research!

An appeal from scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research and a petition.

These people are proposing to destroy a GM crop in the UK at the end of this month. As with Greenpeace's destruction of an Australian GM crop last year, this is a travesty, and damaging to the integrity of the UK's environmental movement. They're planning this action based on the flimsiest of unchecked facts - including the 'cow gene' theme of their website.

The scientists in question (see the video) have made clear they're happy to talk to them. The protestors have responded with: "We are really pleased they want to engage in a discussion. But we know that talking to them is not going to change their minds. They've declared their position because they have already put the plants in the ground." Uh huh.

Here's more on Rothamsted Research and their climate/sustainability aims.

This also supports a pet theory of mine: scientific ignorance is spread across the political spectrum. Climate denialism may be more right-wing, but that's got nothing to do with rightwingers being generally less scientifically literate, despite what various daft analyses have recently been (massively counterproductively) saying. (Hey! How best to alienate a whole chunk of the political compass!) Many instinctive free-market supporters will back GM the same way these GM-attackers instinctively buy in to climate change, without necessarily comprehending the science: their worldview provides shortcut heuristics.

My partner works on biofuels, and is about to start on a project looking at enzymes in composting and whether they can be isolated/put to use in speeding/increasing efficiency of the digestion process. There are so many fantastic scientists working hard to get us through the next 50/100 years - how can we get through to people like 'taketheflourback' that they're being counterproductive?

A one-para summary of my own view of GM: just another crop optimisation tool, no different to what potato farmers in the Andes were doing thousands of years ago. But like any tool, depends on who's using it for what. We need to support *public* funding of crop projects like this (and encourage effective private investment of benefit to all end-users) not confuse "GM" with "Monsanto".

Wibble (massive navel-gaze alert)

"As a professor of rhetoric, I necessarily became a student of narcissism, which for simplicity’s sake I define as not knowing where your boundaries end and the rest of the world begins." (Guy McPherson via desdemonadespair)

Trying to blog at the minute feels very much like I'm in an imaginary room watching nameless faces wobble on a knife-edge between polite concern and genuine horror, as a needling worry tries to get my attention: am I naked from the waist down? Do I have my pants on my head? What am I saying? I hold off, waiting for some surety that I'll say something sensible... I end up writing nonsense like this. Why? Why here? What's the benefit of that imaginary audience and their wobbly faces? Is it just the virtual equivalent of hanging around in parks with your goolies hanging out, hoping someone's going to look over? As the quote above suggests, it's a peculiar sort of solipsism.

I've always thought it was simply that you have to adopt a different writing style to accommodate the possibility - however slim - that the Internets might come and read you. That forces a little more thought about structure and flow. But having taken an extended break from twitface, and now to be trying facebook again, I'm not so sure. Some peope know they have an audience, and that must help define what they're doing in their own mind. After all, the feedback is real, not merely a projected hallucination. But there must, of course, be something intrinsically narcissistic about the enterprise: each entry reaffirms a desire, however obscured by rationalisations, to be observed. Otherwise, why not just keep a journal?

It's obviously daft, though, to say any form of communication is narcissistic, any more than a schoolkid doing their homework makes them so. What I like about the above quote, though, is that it seems to capture something of the role of imagination in online communication. As I say, it's been weird returning to Facebook and moving again from being deeply suspicious to letting it back in the veins again. (Sociology alert: that's Bauman's synopticon right there. We demand to be watched, and our most private utterances only take on meaning with a viewing public, even if that public exists only in our own mind.) With facebook, that's not to say there's no genuine social element to it, but it's only in taking an extended break from it - and then relearning the weird urge to post - that I can sense the little high it provides, the (cod-psychology alert) micro-dose of oxytocin from rubbing up against the leg of virtual sociability. The number of people that actually take part, compared to the nominal quantity of facebook friends anyone has, is a hint of that.

So it's slightly the same when blogging; one's mental reactions are real enough, but it's unclear to me what's really going on. It's un-nerving. Spending five years working towards the endpoint of the PhD is obviously a factor in feeling so weird. What the bejeesus happens now? How come it still feels like now, it was six months ago! I have to actually finish it first. The viva is long done, but the corrections are still lurking about. The thing still feels too unfinished to mention; another narcissistic urge to destroy anything lacking some inestimable quality of good enough. Sloping off quietly and pretending nothing happened seems easier somehow. Thanks all the same, good taxpayers...

Being spat out at the end of PhDing can leave one devoid of all porpoise. A bad acid trip that takes a huge hunking bite out of your alloted years; a fairy land at right angles to the rest of time. Hang on - what the hell's going on again? Where am I? How old? What the hell was that all for anyway? So here I am, pants on my head, naked from the waist down and possibly even with pencils up my nose, deciding the way to deal with that is to blog about it. Who knows? Might help. Not a full online career and friendship destroying mental breakdown, but at least something capable of causing a slight sweat-prickle of embarrassment when read a year later. You might delete it but the internet never forgets.

At any rate, this all by way of a little push for myself to pull the plug out of my, um, nostrils and write some shit down, for better or worse. This sort of navel-gazing is even more narcissistic than blogging about something genuinely empirically interesting, of course, but some writing is (possibly) better than none. I don't really want to strangle that while I wait for a decent academic voice to assert itself; think I'll just carry on as normal and hope for the best.

That said, some preparation did go into a separate academic blog: domain registered and everything. I'm just not sure I have the heart to write that "dear coveredinbees" letter, so I reckon I'll hang on here a while longer, see if I can get those topics going. Thank you in advance, imaginary audience, for indulging my half-naked pants-on-head ramblings. Wibble.

David Attenborough is an alien robot

Was just trying to find out if it's really true that the USA broadcast of Frozen Planet will not include the last episode, 'on thin ice', when I found the Daily Mail apoplectic and red-in-face: "Moving polar bear footage filmed in Germany! Eight million people tuned in! Show sold around the world! BBC denies it misled viewers!!!" That list should really end with "BBC causes mass jowel-shaking incident among the home counties! A-brbrbrbrbrrbbr!"

It's a technique that's been used in previous BBC wildlife programmes, of course, for filming something that would otherwise be next to impossible. Even in this series, I'm guessing they probably didn't have a tiny side-on camera able to follow this vole. (In fact, obviously not, it would have been impossible.) It's probably my natural leaning towards the BBC's liberal commie outlook, but I didn't feel particularly cheated by that. Actually, in both cases above, I thought, 'wow, that must have been a bugger to set up.'

What could possibly have triggered the Mail to turn the jowel-shaker to 11 on this? Might it be anything to do with the great global warming conspiracy, perpetuated by the final episode's blatant presentation of actual, physical evidence? I mean, did you see the number of scientists who are clearly swindling the taxpayer solely so they can fly around the arctic in cool planes looking sexy and rugged?

Polar bears, of course, are pretty much guaranteed to trigger this kind of reaction. Witness the recent suspension and reinstatement of Charles Monnett, following his devious reporting of seeing four dead polar bears.

Backing off slightly from my own buttons being pushed, there's an interesting comparison to the recent Jeremy Clarkson nonsense. Paul Sinha did a good job on the Now Show: however clumsily, Clarkson was actually making a joke about attempts to provide balance, giving both sides of every story. But the meme that escaped was too good to question for many, with some even calling for legal action. Hmm.

Whether the Grauniad or the Mail, pushing your reader's buttons sells papers. It gives them a little addictive high and makes them feel vindicated in their own beliefs. The long hard slog of building a daily, working relationship with the truth is much less exciting.

Update: Discovery have decided to air the climate change episode, it seems.

Boycott everything you're against!

Jeremy Hardy had a quality rant on the News Quiz last week. I'd missed what he was ranting about - Louise Mensch on have I got news for you sneering at the Occupy protesters:

They tweet about it regularly on their iphones, perhaps in between getting cafe lattes. And they're housing themselves in some very fancy tents. So they're against capitalism, except for the lattes.

Hislop and Merton have a good go, but Jeremy's spot on:

Oh god, if you'd just think more. If caffeine were nationalised or the city was bustling with anarcho-syndicalist coffee collectives, the protesters would go to them, but we have to deal with society as it is. I don't remember before the mass privatisations of the eighties, Tories boycotting the phones, gas, electricity, water or anything made from steel. And to this day, conservatives will post a letter, phone the fire brigade - even use the NHS.

Which just goes to show that the BBC really is a leftie-liberal hornet's nest. That aside, though, Jeremy's making a pretty good point.

Hypocrisy finger-pointing crops up regularly in climate arguments. Al Gore probably holds the title for most pointed at, but my favourite is Watts calling Copenhagen `a day that will live in hypocrisy' because politicians used a lot of cars. The hypocrisy stemming, presumably, from all the carbon used to put the thing on, rather than rich and powerful people having big cars.

Hypocrisy finger-pointing is very effective: the message gets out there, and its source won't matter at all if it sticks. In a globalised world, there are two morally consistent positions: amorality or suicide. Everyone else has to put up with being tangled in the daily moral quagmire of a globalised economy. On that, looking forward to cheering myself up watching blood in the mobile.

A secret dictatorship

A secret dictatorship has been ruling us all. It is impossible to hide from, and has been controlling our lives for as long as humans have existed. Try to challenge it, and it will drop you from a great height. There will be nothing you can do. Its forces are everywhere, in every direction you can think of looking. It never, ever drops its guard.

For centuries, people have fought an underground war against it, seeking to free themselves in whatever way they could. There have been small victories, from those who worked tirelessly in terrible danger to seek cracks in the system. But whenever a crack is thought to be found, the forces are there again, slamming it shut. Democracies crumble before it, whole peoples are made to do its bidding. There is no hope of reprieve. There is no escape.

We must join with it. It would be wise, my friend.

OK computer

I tried out Windows 7's own speech recognition software for the first time yesterday, and I'm nearly, almost, amazed. It'll take a little while to work out what I really think about it. It is, overall, probably faster than typing. But typing is a very different process. I'm reminded of Julia Cameron saying that it's all about getting stuff down, not thinking stuff up - the direction's important. Speaking feels like thinking something up. I guess that could change with practice, but the error-rate of typing doesn't interfere with the flow in quite the same way. (Don't interrupt the flow, man... )

I just did a quick one-off test. The paragraph below is the opener for an awesome 1979 geography textbook, 'people, pattern, process', by Keith Chapman, from the days when human geography was just starting to wonder what all this critical theory business might be about. The one I include here was spoken, and I've left in all the errors it made, with corrections in square brackets. Despite my best efforts at newscaster-speak, I still mumble, and perhaps the mic isn't great (just a bog-standard headset) - but this is still pretty impressive given that I didn't need to lift a finger. So: spoken averaged 83 words per minute. I read that people can speak at 120, but that would be a fair old rush. My typing attempt averaged 40 wpm: I'm quick in short bursts but pretty error-prone so I spend a lot of time correcting, but the end product is at least accurate. That 83wpm doesn't include going back through and fixing things.

Even so, pretty impressive. Somehow, even 'Star-trekkers' presented no problem. The program also goes through and indexes your documents, so it's been managing very well at replicating both my own academic language and idiosyncracies (including 'workinz'... perhaps not ideal.) It also allows for easy correction, which it learns from, but that does of course slow things down.

When I have the money, paid speech software might be worth a go if it would improve on this already pretty smart program. But we'll see: perhaps, as I say, it doesn't come down to speed. Words through fingers are different to words aloud. Anyway, here's the speech program's attempt at interpreting my reading, done in 1 min 53 seconds as opposed to about four minutes of hapless typing:

Good science fiction should maintain a credible link between reality and imagination. A productive think of it as [should be: theme for writers of] science fiction has been man's ability to jump be on [beyond] the barriers imposed by the dimensions which define his existence - space and time. Thus HG Wells time traveller could project himself but [both] forward and backward in time. The 'transport are' [transporter] of the starship enterprise enables Captain Kirk [it knows that's a name...?] and his crew to travel through space instantaneously, although it has been known to permit simultaneous movement in both dimensions! [star trek episode in-joke in first para, wow!] Geography may appear to have little in common with such whorls [worlds. I prefer Window's word] of the imagination, but his [its] position as an academic discipline is related to its explicit concern with spatial relationships of objects and events at the surface of the earth. The universal availability of the kind of technology at the disposal of the Star-trekkers would transform these relationships by effectively nullifying the role of distance as an obstacle to movement between one place and another.

They come here, take our jobs, steal a lot of traffic cones...

Cameron's sticking his head in the multicultural nest again and wiggling it about. Don't want to get into the wrongs and rights here, but something I've always found curious: ministers never seem to worry about the impact of people like me - students. Whether or not the just-left-home variety is better or worse than more mature chaps such as myself, we still go in and out of places en mass. Student numbers have gone from just below 350,000 a year in 1999 to near half a million now. Say we're talking about a through-put of four million students in the last decade: what impact has that had in the areas they have gone to? They pour a great deal of money in, of course, but one might argue students have also contributed to the fragmentation of existing communities and of locking out through housing price-hikes. Putnam is still my go-to guy for thinking about how the fabric of communities works: one of the foundations of social capital is staying put. In my old stomping ground, Sheffield, many students do indeed stay on. But then, what's the economic impact of that? A young, well-trained workforce competing for jobs with the locals.

This is all idle wiffle without actual research to back it up. For instance, I don't know what background inter-region migration levels are. If I'd spent more of my time doing proper geography, perhaps I would... Still, don't let that ever stop wild speculation, I say: the impact must be pretty large, given the collosal size of the population shifts. "In most respects, the sociological impacts of student versus from-outside-the-UK immigration are going to look the same." Discuss. Of course, the reason students aren't one of Cameron's punching bags - er, well, aren't more of a punching bag - would be the votes, wouldn't it?

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