Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Danielle Mitterrand (RIP)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Are Beautiful Devices

The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman lives in an airy penthouse on the 14th floor of an apartment block in downtown Manhattan, not far from the Eighth Street subway station. But never mind that for a moment. Instead, without thinking too hard about it, try answering the following question: roughly what percentage of the member states of the United Nations are in Africa? (I'll wait.)

The correct figure isn't what's important here. What matters is that your answer is likely to be lower than if you had first been informed that Kahneman is 77 years old, or if I had claimed his apartment – where he lives with his wife, the British-born psychologist Ann Triesman – was 60 floors up, and near the 86th Street station. This is the phenomenon known as the "anchoring effect", and it is typical of Kahneman's contributions to psychology in that it suggests something rather disturbing about the human mind: not just that we're susceptible to making skewed judgments, but that we're influenced by factors more subtle and preposterous than we could ever imagine.

Kahneman's new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a meaty memoir of his life's work that describes countless such cognitive quirks – but don't imagine that reading it will cure your irrationality. "It's not a case of: 'Read this book and then you'll think differently,'" he says. "I've written this book, and I don't think differently." Kahneman, whom Steven Pinker calls "the most important psychologist alive", is twinkly and energetic. But beneath the surface, he is a pessimist. And he is allergic to the notion that his book might be mistaken for self-help. It's his first work aimed at a mass audience, and he hated writing it: "I really did not want to disgrace myself in front of my colleagues, and I worried the public wouldn't like it if it read like a textbook. Also, I really don't like old men's books, and I felt I was writing an old man's book." Eventually, in despair, he arranged to pay four younger psychologists $2,000 each to review his manuscript anonymously, and to tell him the brutal truth: should he bother finishing?

They liked it. So did I. It's hard not to: Kahneman's approach to psychology spurns heart-sinking tables and formulae in favour of short, intriguing questions that elegantly illustrate the ways our intuitions mislead us.

Take the famous "Linda question": Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that's logically impossible. (It can't be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the "conjunctive fallacy", whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky, who died in 1999, are the primary inspiration for many of the past decade's pop-psychology books – the publishing phenomenon that brought you tipping points and freakonomics, the wisdom of crowds, black swans, and "predictable irrationality". It is a trend that one unimpressed reviewer of Kahneman's book labelled "the effect effect". In the early days, academics took a similarly sniffy view of Kahneman and Tversky's research: Kahneman recalls one well-known American philosopher turning his back on him at a party with the disdainful words: "I am not really interested in the psychology of stupidity." That soon changed, though, as the pair's influence spread rapidly throughout the social sciences, culminating in 2002, when Kahneman became one of a handful of non-economists to win the Nobel prize in economics.

"The psychology of stupidity" is not, in any case, a very apt summary. Kahneman's point isn't that we're all wildly bizarre or idiotic, but that our mental apparatus, which works so well most of the time, sometimes leads us astray in predictable ways. "We're beautiful devices," he says. "The devices work well; we're all experts in what we do. But when the mechanism fails, those failures can tell you a lot about how the mind works."

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents this as a drama with two "characters": System One, which is the domain of intuitive responses, and System Two, the domain of conscious, effortful thought. System One – the kind of mental ability celebrated in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink – kicks in without our needing to think about it. The problem is that it always tries to help, even when it shouldn't, and that it works with whatever it's got, which isn't always the most sensible information.

The biggest challenge this posed was to economists, most of whom assumed that people were basically rational and selfish and acted in their own best interests. The work that won Kahneman the Nobel showed otherwise. For example, we hate losing things more than we like gaining them, which is why people refuse to sell their home for less than they paid, even if it makes financial sense to do so. Similar biases make us behave strangely where risk is involved, too: if forced to choose between being given £500 for certain, or a 50% chance of winning £1,000, most of us will opt for the sure thing. But if the choice is between losing £500 for sure, or a 50% chance of losing £1,000, most of us will take the gamble.

Then there's the much-cited thought experiment involving tickets to the theatre. Suppose a woman plans to buy a ticket for a play costing £40, but en route to the theatre she realises she has lost two £20 notes in the street: would she still buy the ticket? Most people, when asked this question, assume that she would. But what if she bought the ticket in advance, then arrived at the theatre to find she'd lost it? In that case, people assume she'd go home without buying another ticket – even though the scenarios are financially identical. As Richard Thaler, another leading light in the revolution that became known as behavioural economics, told an interviewer, Kahneman and Tversky's research meant that "rationality was fucked". Kahneman, on the other hand, likes to say that you'd need to study economics for years before you'd find his research surprising: it didn't surprise his mother at all.

Kahneman was born in 1934, the son of Lithuanian Jews, and grew up in France. Life was generally good until 1940, when German forces swept in. He recalls drawing, around that time, "what was probably the first graph I ever drew", showing his family's fortunes over time – "and around 1940 the curve crossed into the negative domain." His father was captured during a large-scale sweep of Jews in France, but somehow escaped being sent to a concentration camp and was let go instead. ("The story of my father's release, which I never fully understood, also involved a beautiful woman and a German general who loved her," he wrote.) The family kept moving across France. "The feeling was of being hunted," Kahneman recalls. At one point their home was a chicken coop at the back of a pub. In 1944 his father died of insufficiently treated diabetes, six weeks short of D-day. As soon as the war ended, his mother took the family to live in Palestine, in what would soon become Israel.

Kahneman was drafted into the Israeli army in 1955, where he served as an infantryman for a year – "it was a very tense time, but I never fired a shot in anger" – then worked as a military psychologist. One of his roles was to evaluate new recruits by watching them perform the "leaderless group challenge", in which teams of eight men had to transfer themselves, and a large log, over a 6ft-high wall, without anybody, or the log, touching the wall. The task was designed to reveal the participants' true character, and thus demonstrate who had the making of a future leader. As a method of psychological evaluation, it wasn't much good: Kahneman made predictions, but follow-up research revealed them to be little better than guesses. What the experience taught him, in the end, wasn't how to spot a future hero, but rather how hard it was to expunge his own confidence in his predictions. "We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses," he writes. "But we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid." Confidence is a feeling, not a logical conclusion reached after analysing statistics. Kahneman would later encounter the same phenomenon among investment advisers, who clung to their belief in their abilities even after it was demonstrated that their stock-picking skills left their clients no better off than rolling dice.

The intellectual relationship that defined his career began in the late 1960s at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, when he met Tversky, a young colleague. Kahneman describes their bond as "magical", and it sounds much more like a loving friendship than a scholarly collaboration. For several years, the two spent hours every afternoon in freewheeling conversations, examining their own hunches and intuitions, gradually developing the list of biases and fallacies for which they became famous. "He got up late, and I was a morning person, so we started with lunch, and took it from there," Kahneman remembers. "This kind of collaboration is very unusual in science. We were just extraordinarily lucky, and we knew it." The editor of the journal to which they submitted their first major paper rejected it; their work seemed too frivolous for the academic establishment. "Psychologists really aim to be scientists, white-coat stuff, with elaborate statistics, running experiments," Kahneman says. "The idea that you can ask one question and it makes the point ... well, that wasn't how psychology was done at the time."

With hindsight, however, those single questions seem anything but frivolous. The irrational traits they uncovered are, to pick one notable example, hugely important in understanding the causes of the current economic crisis, which has its roots in (among others) the overconfidence bias and the illusion of skill. If we can't hope to correct such biases in any lasting way, we can perhaps seek to cultivate some humility about the limits of our mental powers. Being the puppet of subtle psychological influences we cannot even recognise is annoying. But at least we can try to remember that that's what's likely to be happening. Well, it's a start.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Great Film



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Basque Peace

A Basque Peace

The unconditional declaration by the Basque separatist group ETA this week that it is finally ending 50 years of violence, during which it killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands more, should be welcomed by all governments and peoples. It is a victory for democracy, as well as a victory for the people of Spain and the Basque regions of Spain and France.

The Spanish government — in particular Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his deputy, the long-time interior minister, Alfredo Rubalcaba — has taken courageous risks for peace and paid a heavy political price when ETA responded by blowing up part of Madrid airport and returning to killing in 2006.

Zapatero and his colleagues never stopped fighting ETA, consistently defending Spanish democracy, and, with the support and cooperation of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, successfully weakened the terrorist movement by arresting its leadership and disrupting their attacks.

But Zapatero also never stopped offering the hand of peace. He made it clear that there would be no secret negotiations, that there would be no political concessions to ETA, and that another cease-fire would not be enough: ETA must unilaterally, publicly and unambiguously declare that it was ending the armed struggle for good if there was to be peace.

The opposition Popular Party, led by Mariano Rajoy, has also always demonstrated its seriousness and responsibility on this issue.

The firmness paid off this week. ETA has now done exactly what was demanded. Its leaders have put violence behind them for good. This really is the end of the last armed confrontation in Europe.

In its declaration ending the armed campaign, ETA asks for talks with the governments of Spain and France to deal with the “consequences” of the conflict. These talks are necessary to assure the dissolution of ETA as a military force.

Just as we did in our talks in Northern Ireland, these talks will deal with the decommissioning of weapons, explosives and military infrastructure, with the issue of prisoners and exiles, with the rehabilitation of those caught up in the violence, with security normalization and with recompense for victims.

As in Northern Ireland, there will be a “peace dividend” for Spain. The billions of euros that have been spent on security can now be redirected to more socially useful ends, a welcome benefit in a time of cutbacks and budget restraint.

As in Northern Ireland we must remember the victims and ensure that the families left behind are properly recognized and supported.

Above all, it will now be possible for all parties in Spain and the Basque region to pursue their aims politically without violence or the threat of violence.

I believe there also are wider lessons from the end of this conflict.

The first is that governments must firmly defend themselves, their principles and their people against terrorists. This requires good police and intelligence work as well as political determination.

But governments must also recognize the need to “talk to their enemies.” Firm security pressure on terrorists must be coupled with offering them a way out when they realize that they cannot win by violence. Terrorist groups are rarely defeated by military means alone. Peace is always made between enemies, not friends. This is as true in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas as it is in the Basque region.

I learned from our experience in Northern Ireland that ending violence and making peace irreversible requires patience, taking risks, suffering setbacks and a constant commitment. It also requires creativity, generosity and statesmanship. In Spain these qualities have been demonstrated by all and will be needed to secure a lasting peace.

Spain will hold national elections on Nov. 20 and a new government will have to take on the hard work of clearing up the consequences of the conflict. This is the point in peace processes when the participants often collapse in exhaustion — but it is when efforts need to be redoubled. The European Union and the wider international community should strongly support the new Spanish government in this effort.

ETA has made a historic declaration. The opportunity for peace must now be seized. I will work to support Spain, France and the citizens of the Basque region in any way I can in their effort to secure the lasting peace and democracy they have long demanded and fully deserve.

Tony Blair was prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Cartoon Of The Day

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Sport & Race

'It was one of the interesting things people were talking about. So I explored it in the book," says Neil Duncanson. What book? His multi-biographical book about 100m sprinters, The Fastest Men on Earth. Head to the final chapter, and there's this: a question raising all sorts of connotations. "Is it now a cast iron fact, at least at the elite level, that white men can't sprint?

Well is it, I ask Duncanson, a sprint enthusiast by night, by day a television executive? "I am not an anthropologist, and I am not trying to construct any theories of my own," he says. "But there are a lot of theories out there. And the fact is that the last white guy in an Olympic final was Allan Wells in 1980."

What about Christophe Lemaitre, the Frenchman who last year became the first white guy to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m? Doesn't he prove the futility of hard and fast pronouncements. "Well he is just one guy. If there were a few more like him, perhaps we would have to think again." And anyway, he says, there is little or no danger of Lemaitre winning in 2012. He'll do well to make the final. The book is unequivocal about that. "It's hard," it says, "to imagine a white sprinter climbing on top of the 100m Olympic podium again."

It was a thrill ride for the author. He spent time with his track heroes, among them Usain Bolt, a one-off fuelled by freakish brilliance, bonhomie and chicken nuggets.

And what's the thinking on the racial angle? Duncanson says one interesting theory is that reached in 1999 by scholar and journalist Jon Entine. It's not that all black athletes sprint faster, Entine said. It's a subset with origins in west Africa. And a key difference, according to this theory is the muscles. "We are all geared by slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibres," Duncanson explains. "The theory is that these athletes have a preponderance of fast-twitch muscles. I see it as an interesting debate, but not particularly controversial."

But of course, sport aside, it is controversial. If muscles are genetically different, what of other genetic differences? There's a Pandora's box, on and off the track. Thank God for Bolt. At least there, you know it's the chicken nuggets.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Are Consumption Levels Falling?

The year 2001 was more eventful than most and, a decade on, we're inundated with anniversaries. September was 9/11, this month the invasion of Afghanistan and next month the release of the first iPod. To which we could add the foot-and-mouth crisis, the Gujarat earthquake and the first ever entries on Wikipedia.

With so many significant events to look back on, one thing that few people will remember 2001 for is its entry in the UK's Material Flow Accounts, a set of dry and largely ignored data published annually by the Office for National Statistics.

But, according to environment writer Chris Goodall, those stats tell an important story. "What the figures suggest," Goodall says enthusiastically, "is that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK's consumption of 'stuff' – the total weight of everything we use, from food and fuel to flat-pack furniture – reached its peak and began to decline."

Quietly spoken but fiercely intelligent, Goodall is a consultant and author who, over the last decade or so, has established himself as a leading analyst on energy and climate issues. Probably the only Green Party parliamentary candidate who also used to work at McKinsey, his speciality is trawling through environment statistics that would send traditional eco-warriors to sleep.

"One thing that's remarkable is the sheer speed with which our resource use has crashed since the recession," Goodall continues. "In the space of a couple of years, we've dropped back to the second lowest level since we started keeping track in 1970. And although the figures aren't yet available for 2010 and 2011, it seems highly likely that we are now using fewer materials than at any time on record."

Goodall discovered the Material Flow Accounts while writing a research paper examining the UK's consumption of resources. The pattern he stumbled upon caught him by surprise: time and time again, Brits seemed to be consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. What really surprised him was that consumption appears to have started dropping in the first years of the new millennium, when the economy was still rapidly growing.

In 2001, Goodall says, the UK's consumption of paper and cardboard finally started to decline. This was followed, in 2002, by a fall in our use of primary energy: the raw heat and power generated by all fossil fuels and other energy sources. The following year, 2003, saw the start of a decline in the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country – a downward trend that before long could also be observed in the commercial and construction waste sectors.

In 2004, our purchases of new cars started to fall – as did our consumption of water. The next year, 2005, saw our household energy consumption starting to slump (notwithstanding an uptick last year due to the cold winter). And in 2006 we seem to have got bored with roads and railways, with a decline in the average distance travelled on private and public transport. All of this while GDP – and population – went up.

Other consumption categories have been falling for much longer, Goodall points out. Despite concerns about the increasing intensity and industrialisation of our farming, the amount of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers being applied to British fields has been falling since the 1980s. Our consumption of cement reached a peak at a similar time.

Even our intake of food is falling. Although obesity is on the rise, the total number of calories consumed by Brits has been on a downward slope for around half a century, driven by the fact that, compared with previous generations, we do less exercise now and live in warmer homes. Perhaps more remarkably, our intake of meat – the food most regularly highlighted as an environmental concern – seems to have been falling since 2003.

Goodall's research sends a counterintuitive message. We might expect to have been getting through less stuff since the financial crash of 2008; but surely throughout the boom years of 1990s and noughties, our rate of material consumption was steadily climbing in step with GDP?

Not according to Goodall. But do his claims stack up? One obvious counter-argument is the fact that we have "outsourced" our resource-hungry industries to China and other developing countries. After all, various reports have already made it clear that while the UK's own use of oil, coal and gas is falling, our total carbon emissions, once you consider all Chinese factories producing our laptops, toys and clothes, continues to rise steadily.

Oddly, though, when it comes to overall resource use – everything from maize to metals – the same doesn't seem to apply. At least, not if we believe the official figures from the Office of National Statistics. Each year, statisticians there estimate the UK's Total Material Requirement, the grand total of all the goods we consume, plus all the materials used in the UK and overseas to produce those goods.

The numbers are head-spinningly huge. Once you add up minerals, fuels, crops, wood and animal products, the UK churns its way through roughly two billion tonnes of stuff each year. That's more than 30 tonnes for each man, woman and child in the country – a giant stack of raw materials as heavy as four double-decker buses. (Or, more specifically, as heavy as four old- fashioned Routemaster buses. In an exception to Goodall's theory, some of the newer, more efficient buses are almost twice as heavy as the old ones.)

Although that's still a massive – and doubtless unsustainable – rate of consumption, Goodall's point is that our appetite for materials may finally be on a downward curve. In particular, he's excited by the fact that over the past couple of decades, we've significantly grown the economy without noticeably increasing our resource use. To use the jargon, Goodall believes that Britain has finally "decoupled" economic growth and material consumption.

If correct, this means we've achieved something that many green commentators believed was impossible. In his influential 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, academic Tim Jackson argued that while economies could become more efficient in their use of resources, genuine decoupling – resource use falling while GDP rises – remained a "myth". This view, and the argument that we therefore should aim for zero-growth economics, has become widely accepted in environment circles.

Goodall believes that the data from the Office of National Statistics, combined with his own research, challenges this assumption. "In 2007, just before the crash," Goodall says, "our total use of materials was almost the same as it was in 1989, despite the economy having tripled in size in the intervening years. And the peak in resource use appears to have been in 2001 – many years before the recession halted economic growth."

Jackson welcomed Goodall's research, describing it as "long overdue" and "exactly the kind of analysis that is sadly lacking at policy level and desperately needed as the basis for a green economy". But he also warned against drawing simple conclusions, pointing out that – thanks to Britain's investments in the global commodity markets – our economy was continuing to increase resource use even if we had started consuming fewer of those resources ourselves. "For those hoping desperately for stuff-free growth," Jackson added, "there is only cold comfort in these statistics."

Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation also doubts the significance of the UK reaching peak stuff. "Measures of our environmental impact are only meaningful when they're related to the planet's ability to keep up. For these findings to be significant, we'd need to be able to demonstrate that we're on the way to being able to live within our ecological means. And on that measure we're still a long way off target."

Jackson and Simms are certainly right that – even if the UK has started consuming fewer resources – it's hardly going to save the planet. Globally, resource extraction is rising, carbon emissions are climbing, rainforests are shrinking, oceans are acidifying and species are disappearing. Solving these problems will clearly take far more than stabilising resource use in mature economies like the UK.

Goodall acknowledges this. "I don't want to suggest for a moment that the world doesn't face massive environmental challenges. But the data I found does suggest the possibility – and it is only a possibility – that economic growth is not necessarily incompatible with addressing these challenges. If growth helps us get more efficient in our use of resources, and actually reduces our consumption of material things, then environmentalists may be very wrong to campaign for a zero-growth economy."

Bringing the debate back to earth, he adds: "It is a trivial example but economic growth, and the innovation that comes with it, have given us the Kindle, a way of allowing us to read books without the high-energy consumption required to make paper. Digital goods generally have lower environmental impact than physical equivalents and if growth speeds up the process of 'dematerialisation', it has positive – not negative – environmental effects."

The idea that the best way to get greener may be to get richer isn't a new one. Economist Simon Kuznets argued decades ago that only when countries get to a certain level of wealth do they start to reduce their environmental impact. In green circles, however, such thinking is controversial. While environmentalists accept that poor countries need to grow economically to lift themselves out of poverty, most are thoroughly sceptical that conventional growth-focused economics is compatible with saving the planet from impending disaster.

There is, however, an emerging pro-growth seam of environmental thinking. Earlier this year, writer Mark Lynas caused a stir with his book The God Species, in which he broke a trio of green taboos by calling for environmentalists to embrace GM foods, nuclear power and growth-based capitalism. GM food would allow us to leave more of the world as wilderness, Lynas wrote; nuclear energy would help us wean ourselves off coal; and climbing economic growth would give us the best chance of combatting global poverty and funding the technical revolution required to green our production of energy and goods.

Simms says that to call for economic growth as the solution to the planet's woes is to miss the point. "The important question is this: is your economy doing something useful, and doing it within environmental boundaries? If we want to create a happy, low-carbon world, there are better ways to do that than slavishly trying to enlarge our economies. Bear in mind that 50 years of GDP growth and increasing resource use in the UK has done nothing to increase our life satisfaction."

Ecological and economic arguments aside, Goodall's suggestion that the UK may have reached the point of maximum resource use throws up lots of interesting questions. Most fundamentally: is it definitely true? How can we be sure that consumption won't soar to new, even greater, highs when the global economy eventually picks up? And if we really have reached a peak, how did we get there? Was it just a matter of shifting to a more service-based economy? Can the internet – or even decades of green campaigning – claim the credit? Or could it be that our densely packed little island is running out of space for new buildings, vehicles and bulky goods? Could eBay and Freecycle be a factor, helping to keep more goods in circulation for longer? Or the fact that more of us are living in cities?

If we can understand how we levelled off British resource use, perhaps that information could help other countries do the same. After all, in a world that may soon be home to nine billion people, there can be fewer more important messages than – when it comes to "stuff" – less can be more.