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October 15, 2007


Can we please ban journalists from using the word 'controversial' as a substitute for explaining the issue. Passages like this from the Independent make me want to throttle somebody:

Candidates rarely talk about reducing the country’s vast appetite for fossil fuels for fear of being attacked as anti-business. In recent weeks public pressure has seen both Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama discretely sign up for carbon ‘cap-and-trade’ systems for industry. The Democratic candidates are far more comfortable talking up renewable energy and hybrid cars and most give their support to controversial ethanol and "clean coal" projects.

The only reason the Democrats are pushing ethanol and clean coal is that they aren't controversial among politicians. Bush has supported both. The 'controversy' is just everybody playing their roles as usual: politicians of both parties like ethanol and clean coal, because they would help farmers and the mining industry. Environmentalists (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc) think they're expensive and still release too much pollution. In short, they aren't the best solution, but they're probably the best solution with a snowball's chance in hell of being enacted.

Also: has anybody else noticed how people used to say "Climate change is as big a problem as X", but recently they've taken to saying "X is as big a problem as climate change"

October 12, 2007

Burma, BBC, UNSC

The UN Security Council has issued a statement on Burma. OK. a statement is better than nothing, but it's basically just meaningless words that will be ignored by the Burmese junta.

But you wouldn't get that from the BBC report. They say:

The statement - which, unlike a resolution, requires the consent of all 15 council members to be adopted - was issued by Ghana's UN Ambassador Leslie Christian, the council's president.

Yep, they totally skip the detail that a resolution actually, well, resolves something. Reading this report, you could easily get the idea that a statement is more significant than a resolution (it's unanimous, right? that has to count for something...). Aren't journalists supposed to cut through all the bureaucratic, procedural crap for us, so that we can have an idea of what's going on without having to understand diplomatic doublespeak?

What's wrong with popularity contests anyway?

I'm often irked by economists' love of applying crude statistical techniques in situations where institutions seem far more important. Don't think I dislike statistics; the kind of hoops Chris Lightfoot was able to do are inspirational, almost magical. And I'm all in favour of using whatever techniqe provides the most useful result. But something feels wrong in fiddling with the data you have until you find a pattern that seems to make reasonable predictions, without even thinking about the underlying mechanisms.

Greg Mankiw's tips for the Nobel prize in Economics trigger this worry. He predicts Eugene Fama, Robert Barro or Martin Feldstein for the prize- on the basis that they're the most-cited economists who aren't already Nobel laureates:

[A]s a purely predictive matter, highly cited economists usually get the prize eventually. In this old citation ranking, the top five most cited economists are all Nobelists. As of today, the prize has gone to more than half of the top 30 (and some of the others may win it in the future).

Mankiw admits this is a pretty crude measurement. It doesn't say anything about the tendency to split Nobel prizes between economists with related work, and is probably more effective at predicting 'people who will eventually win the prize' than 'people who will win the prize this year'.

But it works, so it'll do. And we don't need to worry about how the Nobel committee actually make their decision; it all comes down to a popularity contest.

Incidentally Cosma Shalizi dipped his toes into this area a few months ago. Being Cosma, he skipped past the obvious debate, worried about the differing citation patterns in different areas, and then described a measure of journal popularity that sounds very similar to PageRank. He points to eigenfactor, a project which does just that - and with pretty pictures to go with it.

October 10, 2007

Stealth nationalization

My biggest unresolved question about New Labour is whether they're betraying the left, or stealthily implementing leftish policies in a way that doesn't infuriate the right. This is one point for the latter: persuading independent schools to join the state sector. [via Crooked Timber]

October 4, 2007

Iran in Afghanistan

Barnett Rubin's take on Iran's activities in Afghanistan. Iran is a long-time supporter of the Northern Alliance and the Karzai government, so has been supporting the US (& followers)' efforts. With the escalation of US/Iranian confrontation, though, some Iranian leaders might sacrifice a friendly, stable Afghanistan in favour of harming the USA. That is, they might destabilise Afghanistan just to bog down the Americans. So the Bushies' ranting about Iran in Afghanistan may not be entirely wrong.

Incidentally, like 90% of the worthwhile videos on the internet, this would function perfectly well without any pictures. I may be turning into a radio partisan. [via Registan]

October 1, 2007

Sy Hersh is supposed to have incredible knowledge and attention to detail, right? Writing about "the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown" must really help that reputation.