Ailuropoda economicus

The Jury’s still out on whether humans respond to incentives, but it’s clear that some species do.

The world’s first live broadcast of a panda birth has been called off after experts said the “mother” involved may have been faking the pregnancy to receive better treatment.

Wu Kongju, an expert at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre where Ai Hin is kept, explained that not all “fake” pregnancies among the animals are just down to hormonal changes.

“After showing prenatal signs, the ‘mothers-to-be’ are moved into single rooms with air conditioning and around-the-clock care,” Wu told Xinhua. “They also receive more buns, fruits and bamboo, so some clever pandas have used this to their advantage to improve their quality of life.”

Photo taken by Kevin Dooley, used under Creative Commons license.

Someone just proved the laws of physics wrong

Well, they’re always wrong, or subject to revision, but this is pretty interesting. Familiar with Dark Matter, the matter which we can’t detect but have to assume exists to make all our sums right? Well perhaps our sums were just plain wrong:

A modified law of gravity correctly predicted, in advance of the observations, the velocity dispersion—the average speed of stars within a galaxy relative to each other—in 10 dwarf satellite galaxies of the Milky Way’s giant neighbor Andromeda.

The relatively large velocity dispersions observed in these types of dwarf galaxies is usually attributed to dark matter. Yet predictions made using the alternative hypothesis Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) succeeded in anticipating the observations.


At stake now is whether the universe is predominantly made of an invisible substance that persistently eludes detection in the laboratory, or whether we are obliged to modify one of our most fundamental theories, the law of gravity,” McGaugh continued.

The MOND hypothesis says that Newton’s force law must be tweaked at low acceleration—11 orders of magnitude lower than what we feel on the surface of the Earth. Acceleration above that threshold is linearly proportional to the force of gravity—as Newton’s law says—but below the threshold, no. At these tiny accelerations, the modified force law resolves the mass discrepancy…

via Noahpinion. More at the above link.

Replace “trans” with “foreigner” or “woman”

The bus that trans people were thrown under. Joke stolen from Stavvers.

The bus that trans people were thrown under. Joke stolen from Stavvers on twitter.

There’s an important coda to yesterday’s post. The poor and the vulnerable have often gotten ahead only by standing on the heads of those even worse off than themselves.

I’m not union bashing when I say that the growth of real job security post-war was at the cost of immigrants and women. Look at it this way. If it is harder to exit a job it is harder for everyone else to enter one. In a world where most working people are white, british born men that excludes women and immigrants.

There’s a reason that immigrants have been whitewashed out of the history of the labour movement. As Jamie says, it’s because a lot of rather awful things were done to them in the name of the labour movement, deportations were just part of it. We’re all rightly embarrassed, but it’s important to understand why it happened at all.

If you’re strong enough to organise and affect change then you’re probably not the most vulnerable. I’m not saying don’t organise, I’m saying check your privilege. [1] The victories won by the second worst off might help advance the worst off or they might not. It’s entirely situation dependent.

The victories won by the labour movement in the mid-20th century were spectacular. But they weren’t won by the weakest and they didn’t always benefit the most vulnerable, as Anna and Jamie’s pieces highlight. Thinking about this and yesterday’s post, a similar story can be told about the Equal Marriage Act.

Gay and lesbian people (and to a lesser extent bi people) have won a major victory. But trans people are still being discriminated against, despite everyone shouting about how we’ve passed “equal marriage.” That will rankle, and without the momentum of a much larger, more sympathetic, group behind them it will rankle for a lot longer.

For the LGB  bit what’s happening this week signposts the end of tolerance and the beginning of acceptance. David Cameron said (*cough* after me *cough*) that Tories should support gay marriage because its a conservative institution. He’s right. The gays have gone mainstream and this means a lot of trans people are getting left behind. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident.


[1] I’m a historian, looking for bias in your sources (and your own thinking and writing) is just what you do. Is there even another option? I was shocked to see twitter erupt in displeasure over the phrase “check your privilege.” You have no other choice.

Something that makes me happy


CC image courtesy of Elad Rahmin on Flickr

One of the few things I’ve written about here which I’m actually proud of is the death of Gabrielle Price. Covering the death of a child is difficult and I don’t really want to do it again because it made me sad. The ECB makes me angry, and has caused more harm than I can comprehend, but it doesn’t make me sad in the same way as a politicised death of a child.

If you’ve heard of Gabrielle Price, and you probably haven’t, anywhere other than this blog then it is likely you think she died at a party after taking mephedrone (or meow meow as nobody outside Fleet Street called it) . I started covering the drug and her death because it seemed a moral panic was in the offing and I wanted to document one develop.

Mephedrone did actually kill some people, but far less than reported – the weasel word “linked” does a lot of work in the literature. But that was enough for the then Labour government to discuss making it illegal as part of a job creation scheme for the underworld.

Gabrielle Price didn’t die from taking the then legal high, it was  broncho-pneumonia following a streptococcal A infection that killed her. You can follow the sad tale hereherehere and here. Hopefully one of the uses of  this blog is that people googling her name might know she died boringly, normally, of a lung infection not from a drug with a funny name.

Anyway, the drug which didn’t kill her and which didn’t kill many people was banned and promptly stayed available, decreased in purity, modestly increased in price. I’ve never been in favour of banning drugs, quit the opposite, and I found the linking of her death to the drug  depressing and enraging.

Yesterday, I found out today that New Zealand are taking a completely different approach and will test, monitor and regulate legal highs like mephedrone:

It’s the first nation to take a dramatically different approach to psychoactive substances like party pills and synthetic marijuana… [that] go by names like bath salts, spice or meow-meow.

In a 119-to-1 vote on Thursday, the country’s parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Bill, establishing a framework for testing, manufacturing and selling such recreational drugs. (via)

Anyway, this made me think about the “Gabrielle Price” google alert I set up at the end of 2009. It returned depressingly misleadiong results about her for a long, long time after her death. But I realised I can’t have received one in years now. And that makes me happy.

The Nature of the Farm: Exploding pig shit

It isn’t often I get to write such a profane title which references Ronald Coase. Today is a good day for blogpost titles [1] and a bad day for farm workers. As with most factories with simple inputs and outputs pig farming scales very well. This means that they can get very big before they start seeing diseconomies of scale but once they do they’re pretty unique diseconomies of scale.

In a paper which makes me miss my Athens’ subscription, Alex Coads highlights that profit isn’t a very good predictor of firm growth. [3] In fact firm growth is a little random. But something which definitely prevents firm growth are diseconomies of scale.

Normally these refer to limits on staff monitoring, communication costs, duplications of effort and office politics. None of these are particularly relevant  for pig farms (pigs actually don’t collude, sadly for them), so they’ve just kept getting bigger and becoming more profitable to the point where they are discovering industry specific diseconomies of scale:

The problem is menacing: As manure breaks down, it emits toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, and trapping these noxious fumes under a layer of foam can lead to sudden, disastrous releases and even explosions. According to a 2012 report from the University of Minnesota, by September 2011, the foam had “caused about a half-dozen explosions in the upper Midwest…one explosion destroyed a barn on a farm in northern Iowa, killing 1,500 pigs and severely burning the worker involved.”

Apparently this just did not happen before 2009. Factory farming has helped us to feed the world. Intensively farmed pigs [2] have allowed for more protein to be produced at a great cost in terms of animal suffering and at little costs in terms of money. Negative externalities where they have existed have been more diffuse, like water pollution, such severe diseconomies of scale at the farm level are relatively new.

What we are seeing is a limit to farm size. There aren’t many firms that are limited in size by the quantity of waste produced, but it appears we’ve found one. I think it is safe to say Coase couldn’t have seen this one coming in 1937.


[1] Is this the sort of post I should be writing if I want this job? I presume so.

[2] Writing this post makes me want Mario at Brindisa to cut me some Iberico jamon. From organically farmed, acorn fed pigs, that stuff though. And very expensive: Tesco value ham is £0.41/100g while Iberico jamon is more than ten times that, those prices tell a story.

[3] Do I really have to keep writing via Chris?

Technologically induced anti-globalisation

Chris here talks about the current deceleration of globalisation.

Figures from the OECD show that globalisation is already slowing down. It estimates that import penetration in developed economies – the share of imports in total final spending – rose from 13.4 to 21.4 per cent between 1993 and 2007 – a rise of 0.5 percentage points each year. But in the five years since then, it has risen a mere half percentage point, to 21.9 per cent.

The shorting of food supply chains has been one response to the horse meat scandal. But that is one part of a wider trend against globalised supply chains. Credit constraints are slowing globalisation because international trade needs financing, currency volatility is slowing globalisation because it makes trade more unpredictable and the home bias has increased as during downturns people become more insular.

One other thing that Chris doesn’t directly mention driving shortening global supply chains and anti-globalisation is technological change. That sounds counter intuitive but it’s not. Normally we think that technological changes like steamboats, transatlantic telegraphs and the internet as driving globalisation forward, but other similar trends work in the opposite direction. What we are seeing is data-creation-biased technological and behavioural change. That’s a phrase I just invented, which explains why it is so clumsy.

Let me explain. As time and technology progresses each of produces more data. That data is valuable. At the moment we give that data away for free, authorising this app and that app to record our likes, our past times and so on. Our data is being monetised, it’s just not use getting the money. But where there’s money, there’s fraud. You can see some pretty unsubtle examples here. Someone can can capture the benefits if they surreptitiously get your data.

The objects and programmes which record this data thus become not only passive meters but engines of value creation themselves. You’re already seeing this happen. Have you hear of Huawei? Probably not. If some Chinese people plan to get up to no good it’s convenient that westerners can’t differentiate between one name and another. Anyway. There was a minor scandal last year when it was reported that some of their appliances were beaming information back to China in a classic “can’t trust the sneaky yellow people” brouhaha.

Whether the accusation are true or not is kind of irrelevant, the panic was real and the threat is real. If not Huawei, then someone else will soon be trying to steal your valuable data. If a firm wants the things it manufactures to be secure in the future it will need to monitor its supply chain and at the moment this means keeping it short. Anti-globalisation biased technological change in action.

Let’s take one concrete example. Smart Meters will (probably) be in every home in Britain by the end of 2020, they will record our energy use in real-time. Most mundanely Time of Use tariffs will allow people to buy energy when it’s cheap. But as appliances connect to this smart system, a cascade of data will be generated about our every habit, washing, TV watching, what is plugged in where and so on. Energy suppliers will become IT firms that happen to sell us electricity.

For a lot of firms, the final assembly of smart meters isn’t happening in China or Japan or anywhere else, it’s happening here. That’s because it is cheaper to monitor manufacture here than there. Data driven technological change is shrinking supply chains. If you want to control something you need to monitor it. When information is valuable security becomes important. Thus as we digitise everything from conversation to washing machines we should expect supply chains to shorten and globalisation to decelerate or even reverse.

Nuclear Power can save us from climate change

I think the left and environmentalists need to embrace nuclear power. There are plans for EDF and British Gas to build four reactors, and it is likely that those would be the first of many; Hitachi, GDF Suez and Iberdrola are all interested in building new nuclear in the UK.

Why new nuclear? Well, I was initially a reluctant supporter, but when it comes to large scale, uninterrupted base load generation it is hard to beat nuclear. Plus, no carbon. Not none really, building things emits carbon, but near enough for it to be properly counted as a renewable fuel.

EDF have just announced they are planning on running their existing UK nuclear fleet for another 34 years (that’s across three plants, Hinkley Point, Hunterston and Sizewell). Increasing their life like this will do enough to reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing all the cars from UK roads for nearly five years. It is about 340 million tonnes of carbon that won’t be emitted. That is just from running longer our existing plants – that’s a big plus for the planet and for people.

But, there are huge problems with nuclear power in Europe.

First of all, Sellafield, it is a mess. Honestly, it is even worse than you imagine. Look it up, the National Audit Office have a report and Wikipedia have some background. Building 30 sounds pretty fucked up especially. And I’ve heard some odd things about the Seagulls that live there – huge they are. However, we are better at dealing with waste now and things are today built so that it is easy to take them apart safely.

That brings us to building, which is the real problem. No Europeans have built Nuclear Power Plants to budget for years. France and Finland have both fucked up colossally. Like three times above cost and behind schedule. Ludicrously badly. However, despite this, all is not lost. The Japanese and Chinese have built ahead of schedule. They don’t have special Asian-aptitude powers, anybody can do it if the corrupt, incompetent, unproductive Chinese can.

So to the problems of nuclear, I would say that they are in the past or that they can be overcome. The promise of nuclear energy is in predictable energy and tons of it with tons of carbon. I think it is the best bet for decarbonising the economy and I think serious environmentalists need to get behind it.