Monthly Archives: October 2006

stoic and dark

A corker from Spiegel Online. Gabor Steingart calls for a European-American free-trade zone, something that Angela herself is apparently quite keen on. Me too, if only because then I’d sleep more soundly in the knowledge that Marmite isn’t going to be next.

Alas, Mr Steingart is plainly mad. Evident from the outset is his real bugbear, not protectionism but … The Chinaman.

Asian businessmen are probably the friendliest conquerors the world has ever seen. But despite the politeness and the smiles, Western governments must act quickly to combat the rise of China and Asia.

He goes on to combine economic illiteracy with a quite impressive xenophobia:

The world war for wealth calls for a different, but every bit as contradictory, solution. Alas, once again many lack the imagination to see that the aims of our economic opponents are far from peaceful. Yet what sets this situation apart from what we usually call a conflict — what paralyzes the West — is how quietly the enemy is advancing.

A stoic and dark superpower

Their secret is stoic perseverance, the weapon they use to pursue their own interests while at the same time disregarding ours. What looks like a market economy in Asia, actually follows the rules of a type of society which former German chancellor Ludwig Erhard liked to call a “termite state.” In a termite state, it is the collective rather than the individual which sets the agenda. Tasks that serve the aims of society’s leaders are assigned to the individual in a clandestine manner that is barely perceptible to outsiders. It is a state that encourages as much collective behavior as possible but only as much freedom as necessary. We don’t know what they feel, we don’t know what they think and we have no way of guessing what they are planning. Indeed, this is what makes China a dark superpower.

Bogus analogies involving insects. Vague allusions to Asian single-mindedness and inscrutability. It’s almost quaint.

Steingart heads Der Spiegel’s Berlin office. He was apparently chosen as `The Economic Writer of the Year’ in 2004, although it’s not clear by whom. When it comes to sub-Goldsmithian econo-populism tinged with a rather, shall we say, ‘interesting’ politics, Steingart apparently has form. When a numpty like this espouses (ostensible) free-market reforms, I start to worry. It would be so much easier if he were on the other side.


Benjamin Schwarz in the current issue of the Atlantic:

(Gruen himself wrote prolifically, yet … his oeuvre suffers from chronic self-congratulation and Mitteleuropean gaseousness.)

The very next sentence:

M. Jeffrey Hardwick’s `Mall Maker’, a deeply researched (the detailed endnotes are marvelous), conventional narrative, concentrates on Gruen’s impact on American society, but almost completely ignores his architectural and design achievements, a subject that Alex Wall, a Dutch architect and urban planner, examines more closely in his `Victor Gruen’, an unusually handsome and well-illustrated book.

[P.S. Googlewhack!]

Update: I am undone.  I have un-googlewhacked myself. How meta is that?

from here to paternity

Oooh, he’s got his father’s eyes/hands/vacant expression. Such are the comments every new parent has to tolerate. Never mind that three-week-old ricardito looks like your standard generic infant: he apparently has my nose (`nicely rounded’ says the mother-in-law; `bulbous’ sighs the wife).

The degree to which newborn babies resemble their fathers is, of course, interesting from an evolutionary perspective. Males don’t want to invest resources rearing other males’ children, and so looking like your father can be adaptive. The catch is that it’s only adaptive if your father is in fact the male proposing to rear you. It might equally suit philandering bandits (and their female partners) to have children that at most resemble their mother. Empirically the matter seems not to be settled, as a glance here indicates, but it does appear that infants’ likeness to their fathers is not great.

[Aside: I’m not sure how, or even if, such empirical studies account for the fact that any lack of paternal resemblance in the study group can arise for two reasons: first, that kids don’t look like their fathers all that much; second, that their fathers might not be their fathers. ]

Sticking to theory, what range of `strategies’ might we expect to see in macro equilibrium once we take the above forces into account? If we lump mating behaviour in there too, my hunch is that we should observe equilibria where both {adultery, no paternal resemblance} and {fidelity, paternal resemblance} strategy combinations are played. From the male viewpoint, resemblance is only adaptive if one is in danger of being cuckolded by philanderous bandits playing the first strategy pair, while banditry only pays if there are potential cuckolds out there.

This at first seems to predict an `arms race’ along the resemblance dimension. One problem with this idea, though, is that there’s an inherent asymmetry. The philanderer can’t make his offspring resemble the cuckold, since there’s no gene for that; at best, the offspring will look like the mother.

In these circumstances, why wouldn’t a faithful male (also `playing’ the paternal resemblance strategy) leave if there is no such resemblance and his mate’s child resembles her alone? This paper (discussed here) introduces another strategy level, that of deceit and gullibility. It is obviously in the mother’s interest always to tell her mate that the baby looks like him, regardless of the actual paternity. A main result of the paper is that it may be in the mate’s interest to believe her, as long as the probability of deceit is low enough that the expected benefit from sticking around exceeds the expected opportunity cost.

The problem with this story is that `low probability of deceit’ equals ‘low proportion of bandits’. And a low proportion of bandits is just not consistent with stable equilibrium if the non-bandits are gullible and babies do not overly resemble their fathers. Philandery will be highly adaptive, bandits will flourish and gullibility will cease to be adaptive.

Something is missing here. I’ll have to think.

r&r for peer review

The quality of scientific research is maintained by the peer review process. Or at least that’s the idea of peer review. But that process is expensive, time consuming and anything but fail-safe. It puts a considerable strain on academics’ time. Some that I know, claim to get multiple requests to review papers every day—though I’m not sure I believe them. In any case, it takes time to review papers properly and you are expected to do it as part of your service to the scientific community. In other words, you do it for free. There are serious doubts about the utility of this system of self policing both in the natural and social sciences. There are plenty of cases of good or even great papers that get rejected and mediocre papers that get published in elite journals. It’s a capricious process.

Now Nature, as part of an ongoing debate on peer review, has launched an interesting experiment. Authors can choose to participate in a trial online peer review where they post papers to a website and academics in the field can provide comments and review the manuscripts. Submitted papers will still go through the traditional review process, but the editors will be able to take both sets of comments into account when making publication decisions.

This seems like a pretty good idea to me. It happens all the time that papers get rejected/published because editors don’t have enough information, or rely too heavily on the judgement of a bad reviewer or ignore that of a good reviewer. Hopefully the Nature trial will work in such a way that bad reviews will stand out from the crowd as just that.

This and this are also kind of interesting.

sanctimonious is as sanctimonious does

Paul Hewson, possibly the most sanctimonious person on earth, has apparently decided to move his millions out of Ireland for tax reasons. Well OK, I can understand that. And it’s not like it’s the first time it’s happened. But usually when the super rich try to escape high taxing governments they don’t simultaneously demand that those governments spend more tax money. In effect Bono is telling the Irish to give up things (better roads, schools or whatever taxes go to) for stuff that makes him feel good about himself (better roads, schools or whatever in Africa) at no expense to him. Bono and the rest of them are of course free to do as they please with their money. But I can’t help wonder what he’ll spend that extra $5M lining his pockets on. Somehow I doubt he’ll put it where is rather large mouth is. Cheap talk, as it were.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not the first time Bono’s made it clear that idealism and principles are great just as long as they don’t have to apply to him. Johan put it nicely:

Tuesday, 1/2/2005:

19:28 – YOU TOO, U2?: Some suggest that economic self-interest is the reason why people hold their views. Most of the time I find that idea much too cynical. But sometimes I have to confess that they are on to something.

Bono, U2’s lead singer, is one of the leaders of the campaign to supply the third world with drugs by dismantling the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies. So is this his position on IPRs generally? Not at all. Bono is also one of the leaders of the campaign to strengthen the IPRs of (you’ve guessed it) musicians. Today, most European countries protect copyrights on sound recordings for no more than 50 years. The U2 members think that they should be allowed to “retain their copyright for at least as long as they live, and to pass it to their heirs, just like any other asset that they own.” Yes, it’s very easy to say that property if [sic] theft when you’re talking about other people’s properties.
Someone might say that there is a big difference between music and life-saving drugs. I agree. Gifted musicians would probably continue to create music even if they didn’t make much money on it. But I don’t think that anyone would continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into research for new drugs if they had no way of financing that investment through sales. And, even though I really like U2, I would prefer a world without “With or Without You”, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” to a world without life-saving drugs.

Indeed. Though I would have written the last sentence to start “I would prefer” and end after “New Year’s Day.”

And what’s with the nicknames? Bono? The Edge? Please. I can just imagine the scene as David Evans decides he too wants a cool nickname. “Hey if you’re Bono, I’m gonna be… Um… How about Aquaman? No… The Wall! No, no…The Vertex, The Edge! Yes, that’s it, I’m The Edge! Cool, man.” As Bono walks away mumbling, “But I want to be The Edge too…”

iggy’s more blah blah blah than lust for life

Yesterday I went to the Liberal Party leadership debate. While the recent super weekend of delegate selection for the convention made it clear that this is now a fourway race with one definite frontrunner, that frontrunner had a performance so dire yesterday that when all’s said and done he may look back at it as the beginning of the end.

Back in March, at the start of this absurdly long campaign, many observed that the motley crowd of candidates represented some kind of B-team. Liberal Light, as it were. There’s something to that. Ignatieff has been out of the country for 30 years, has no experience and looks like an opportunist. Bob Rae, the former leader of the Ontario NDP, was the most unpopular Premier in province’s history. Which is obviously why he’s decided too eschew ideas. Stéphane Dion is a nice guy and a smart guy, but has all the charisma of a French-Canadian-academic-specialising-in-public-administration turned cabinet minister. And rounding out the top four, Gerrard Kennedy speaks French about as well as this guy, and so cannot win. So you could be forgiven for thinking the Liberals of Mackenzie, Laurier, Pearson and Trudeau could do better. Manley, McKenna and Tobin—members of the apparent A-team—didn’t have the cajones (or were too smart) to run this time around.

On the other hand, the B-team label is somewhat unfair. Of the four left standing on both feet after the delegate selection, there are three PhDs, one Rhodes Scholar, a former KSG heavyweight, etc. So there’s some intellectual fire power there. Though, as Ricardo points out, intellectuals like these, with their grand schemes, never make good. Especially the overtly wonkish type. Rae and Dion really are nothing if not wonks. Even Ignatieff can’t help being a little wonkish, despite his attempts to cultivate a Trudeauesque public persona. He’s also just a little too precious for my liking.

Last week was a disaster for Ignatieff. To recap, in August he said the following about the Israeli bombing of Qana:

Qana was frankly inevitable in a situation in which you have rocket-launchers within 100 yards of a civilian population. This is the nature of the war that’s going on …This is the kind of dirty war you’re in when you have to do this and I’m not losing sleep about that.

This was of course seized upon by the usual suspects as evidence of Ignatieff’s imperialist, Americanist take on the Middle East. Nowhere more so than in Québec. Eager not alienate the large Lebanese community in the province he did the Canadian thing and apologised. So a week ago he went on TV in Québec and said:

I showed a lack of compassion. It was a mistake. And when you make a mistake, even off the cuff, one must admit it…. I was a professor of human rights. I am also a professor of rights in war. And what happened in Qana was a war crime. And I should have said that, that’s clear.

Inevitably, Ignatieff lost a bunch of Jewish support, and a bunch of support from people who don’t want to lose Jewish support. It also opened the door for Harper to level the ‘anti-Isreal’ charge against the Liberals. And that opened the door for Rae and others to point out the obvious: that Iggy might be smart but that he might not be up to the task of big league leadership and politics. Which brings me to the debate.

After a very very bad week, this was Ignatieff’s chance to get back. He dropped the ball miserably. Actually, he never even picked the ball up. He and Rae faced off on a question on foreign policy. Rae was originally against the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Then more recently he came out in favour of it. Essentially he is a man without any clarity on the issue. Ignatieff could have so easily exploited this. Instead he came off looking like a child. He tried to challenge Rae, saying, “I actually don’t know where you stand on this issue.” All Rae had to do was respond with the inevitable:

You certainly do know. For a guy who changed his mind three times in a week with respect to the Middle East….

Then Ignatieff lost it. Sputtering, almost shouting, “Absolutely untrue. You know that’s untrue. You’ve known me for 40 years.”

This is revealing in two ways. First, Rae is simply in a different class as a politician. What Ignatieff should have done is not give Rae the chance for the one-liner by leaving the question open.  Putting him on the spot and really challenging him to tell the audience his views on the Middle East and Afghanistan would have made Rae’s lack of ideas the headline this morning. Second, someone has to tell Ignatieff to stop couching everything he says in terms of himself. His parents are buried in Québec, so he trots that out for the unity question. He’s been to Kosovo, so he knows about ethnic conflict. Rae has known him for forty years, so that’s enough to save a gaffe filled week. As a friend remarked today, political campaigns are funny beasts, candidates suffer from deeply ingrained habits and no one dares tell them to change. In my opinion, what Ignatieff needs is for Bruno to tell him what it’s like.

i am van cleef!

I mentioned my fondness for the work of Bud Spencer a couple of weeks ago. Today I was listening to ‘The Big Gundown’ a collection of reggae songs inspired by spaghetti westerns. The final track, by Joe White and the Crystalites, is ‘They Call Me Trinity’; this is after the first of the ‘Trinity’ films starring Spencer and Terence Hill. And yes, ‘Trinity Is Still My Name’ is the sequel.

Googling King Stitt, who provides ‘Lee Van Cleef’ on the album, led me to the discovery that the original il cattivo appears to have his own myspace page, just like Bud. Is myspace where spaghetti westerners go to die?

That legend holds the films were banned in Jamaica because audiences were shooting at the screen is no surprise. I once read that in the Biafran war soldiers were treated to screenings of ‘The Wild Bunch’, and subsequently went into battle determined to die like William Holden.