What I’ve been reading

Old: Sense and Sensibility. Probably my favourite among Jane Austen’s novels. By the way, has anyone else noticed that while Austen’s heroines are interestingly different, all her books seem to feature the same two male characters – the attractive, but dishonest younger man (Willoughby, Wickham, William Elliot, Frank Churchill) and the seemingly reserved, but really passionate (and usually older) man (Darcy, Brandon, Knightley, Wentworth). I wonder if this is just a handy plot device or whether it reflects some event in Austen’s life, of which we know little.

New Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. A great story, and also interesting for the link between Anansi, the West African trickster-spider and Brer Rabbit, which is obvious enough once pointed out (there’s even a tar baby story) but was still new to me.

Exxon: We believe in global warming, so we shouldn’t be criticised for funding global warming denialists

As everyone knows (or ought to know by now), one of main reason controversy over climate change is continuing in the face of overwhelming evidence is the fact that ExxonMobil has the cash spigot open to fund anyone willing to deny the evidence – the Competitive Enterprise Insitute, George Marshall Institute and the old tobacco industry network run by Steven Milloy, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer have been among the main beneficiaries. The Royal Society wrote to them recently, asking them to turn off the money tap.

Exxon’s response

The Royal Society’s letter and public statements to the media inaccurately and unfairly described our company.”

It went on: “We know that carbon emissions are one of the factors that contribute to climate change – we don’t debate or dispute this.”

So, they know the groups they are funding are lying, but they need to promote the idea that there is so much uncertainty that we should do nothing. The best way to do this is to create as much Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt as possible.

Close the freeway for good?

A few days ago, cracks were discovered in the on-ramps to the Riverside Expressway, Brisbane’s main access route to the city. The decision was made to close the ramps and a large section of the freeway immediately and, not surprisingly, chaos ensued. The debacle was used to make the case that we need more freeways, tunnels, bridges and so on.

But three days later, the ramps are still closed and everything is working as smoothly as you could imagine. I took the ferry to Southbank at 8am yesterday to teach a course. It was full, but not overcrowded, and the traffic was zipping over the bridges as if it was Sunday. There’s been a big shift to public transport and people have been avoiding or rescheduling trips into the city. Obviously, the second of these is, in large part, a temporary adjustment that won’t be sustained indefinitely, but quite a few people have discovered that taking the train or bus into town is actually easier than driving.

Looking at this experience, it seems as if having the freeway closed for a while has done us some good. We should try it again some time.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Obvious truths finally stated

With Blair on the way out, the British military leadership seems to be in open revolt. Following the admission last week by the army chief that the Iraq war had made terrorism worse, there’s this

The invasion of Iraq prevented British forces from helping to secure Afghanistan much sooner and has left a dangerous vacuum in the country for four years, the commander who has led the attack against the Taliban made clear yesterday.

Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of 3 Para battlegroup just returned from southern Afghanistan, said the delay in deploying Nato troops after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 meant British soldiers faced a much tougher task now.

Asked whether the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath had led to Britain and the US taking their eye off the ball, Brig Butler said the question was “probably best answered by politicians”.

Not original, but significant by virtue of the source.

The only reading I can make of this is that the British top brass are desperate for a quick withdrawal from Iraq, as soon as Blair goes, and are applying as much pressure as possible (even at the cost of violating conventions about military comment on political issues) to ensure that Gordon Brown does not succumb to threats or blandishments from Washington.

Update Brigadier Butler claims he was misquoted

I refuse to use that word, but …

I’m using my blog to beg for help on a minor point.

The Wikipedia article on pscyhological egoism, which draws on the e Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes

Finally, psychological egoism has also been accused of using [[circular logic]]: “If a person willingly performs an act, that means he derives personal enjoyment from it; therefore, people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment”. In particular, seemingly altruistic acts must be performed because people derive enjoyment from them, and are therefore, in reality, egoistic.. This statement is circular because its conclusion is identical to its hypothesis (it assumes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment, and concludes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment).

I’ve added the claim, based on memory that “This objection was made by William Hazlitt in the 19th century, and has been restated many times since then”, but Google only produces reference to a previous occasion on which I made the same claim. Can anyone point to a good citation of Hazlitt on this, or to any other versions of this argument from the 19th and 20th centuries?

Border taxes on CO2

If a global emissions trading system is to be implemented, there needs to be a method of deterring free riders – countries that choose not to limit their own emissions. The obvious candidate is a border tax on embodied CO2 emissions. This possibility looks a lot closer with the EU considering trying it out for cement. The issue is unlikely to go away, and will no doubt cause huge ructions in WTO and similar bodies if it goes ahead. (via Dan Drezner).

Belated congratulations

As everyone knows by now, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel went to Edmund Phelps. Phelps award is one of the relatively rare cases where the Economics Nobel has genuinely been awarded for a single big discovery rather than for a research program. By incorporating inflation expectations into the Philips curve, Phelps killed the idea of a stable long-run trade-off between unemployment and inflation, and, in effect, predicted the emergence of inflation in the 1970s. As Phelps himself noted, the implication of the new model that there exists a ‘natural’ or ‘non-accelerating inflation’ rate of unemployment has not fared nearly so well, but the central point that there is nothing to be gained, in the long run, by allowing inflation rates to rise, remains valid.

Congratulations also to the winner of the Peace Prize, Muhammed Yunus who founded the microcredit provider Grameen Bank

Even more belatedly, Australian Terry Tao shared the Fields Medal in mathematics back in August for his contributions to partial differential equations, combinatorics, harmonic analysis and additive number theory.