Saturday, 30 December 2006

Moving to Opportunity: Girls vs Boys

A US program to move poor families out of low-income neighborhoods had surprising results: while poor girls did significantly better in the new neighborhoods, poor boys did significantly worse.

I wonder why. An evol-psych based guess, and it is just a guess, would be: poor males are more likely to suffer discrimination (in some very broad sense) from rich males than poor females.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Christmas in Iraq

At 10 o’clock PM, the 24th of December, Santa and his reindeers were flying over Baghdad. Rather lower than usual, so that the radars will not be able to detect them. Rudolph checked that out thoroughly .
The land beneath them was completely black; no lights, no decorations, no fire works no sign of Christmas at all. Every now and then they would hear bullets sounds and explosions . Rudolph gave instructions to the others to go a little lower, when they reached the local church. The church was closed; no chanting or bells could be heard, just a well locked mute building. The next second a deafening blast ripped the sky and faster than Santa and his reindeers could realize , they plunged down into a filthy water puddle . They lay there in the dark too shocked to move for a while . The first voice was uttered by Rudolph :- Santa are you alive ? answer me .- Arghhhh, ohhhhh, I am ok I think, were we hit ?- I think so . I read that mortar missiles are in fashion now in Baghdad .

Read the whole story at the Iraqi roulette .

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Learn SNA, join the marines

The US Army used Social Network Analysis to capture Saddam Hussein:

The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 was the result of hard work
along with continuous intelligence gathering and analysis. Each day another piece of
the puzzle fell into place. Each led to coalition forces identifying and locating more of
the key players in the insurgent network—both highly visible ones like Saddam Hussein and the lesser ones who sustained and supported the insurgency. This process produced detailed diagrams that showed the structure of Hussein’s personal security apparatus and the relationships among the persons identified.
The intelligence analysts and commanders in the 4th Infantry Division spent the
summer of 2003 building link diagrams showing everyone related to Hussein by
blood or tribe. Those family diagrams led counterinsurgents to the lower level, but
nonetheless highly trusted, relatives and clan members harboring Hussein and helping him move around the countryside. The circle of bodyguards and mid-level military officers, drivers, and gardeners protecting Hussein was described as a “Mafia organization,” where access to Hussein controlled relative power within the network.
Over days and months, coalition forces tracked how the enemy operated. Analysts
traced trends and patterns, examined enemy tactics, and related enemy tendencies
to the names and groups on the tracking charts. This process involved making continual adjustments to the network template and constantly determining which critical data points were missing.
Late in the year, a series of operations produced an abundance of new intelligence
about the insurgency and Hussein’s whereabouts. Commanders then designed a series of raids to capture key individuals and leaders of the former regime who could
lead counterinsurgents to him. Each mission gained additional information, which
shaped the next raid. This cycle continued as a number of mid-level leaders of the
former regime were caught, eventually leading coalition forces into Hussein’s most
trusted inner circle and finally to Hussein’s capture.

See Appendix B.
The whole thing is quite interesting reading - it's the US army's counterinsurgency manual.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006


(I'm going to use this post to collect quotes in. The first is a juicy one via the Economist.)

“The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done.” - Carlyle

"It is safest to be moderately base - to be flexible in shame, and to be always ready for what is generous, good, and just, when anything is to be gained by virtue." - Sydney Smith

"They all want to be eagles, but they don't want to act like eagles, so we're going to have to do it ourselves" - Ken Kesey, quoted in Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

"The mere knowledge of a fact is pale; but when you come to realize your fact, it takes on color." - Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

"The manipulation of fervor is the germ of bondage" - Milovan Djilas

"It is, therefore, a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact. But to satisfy us on this head, we may consider, that men are generally more honest in their private than in their public capacity, and will go greater lengths to serve a party, than when their own private interest is alone concerned. Honour is a great check upon mankind: But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is, in a great measure, removed; since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party, for what promotes the common interest; and he soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries." -- Hume, On the Independence of Parliament

Monday, 18 December 2006

Saw Borat the other day

and laughed like a drain. Shyanmei was traumatized by the naked wrestling scene. One of the funniest and most shocking bits is Borat's ludicrously over-the-top anti-semitism. Here's a story of the real life equivalent:

I was like most teenagers whose main source of news was Saddam’s regime’s media outlets and school curricula. They all denounced the “Jews”. None of them clarified what the difference was. Like most of those in my age, I was brain washed. I was taught to hate the “Jews”, all of them, not only the “Zionists”....

The first thing that clarified things to me was when I worked with American journalists. I discovered that some of them were Jews. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid and confused. I couldn’t even ask for people’s advice. How come I tell them I work with those whom they hated their entire lives? Should I keep working with them or stop? I wondered. I was torn. “These are Zionists,” I thought at the time until I found out the real difference....

It was through the internet that I first recognized that mysterious difference that was hidden and kept away from Iraqis for decades. It was time to ask more about the Iraqi Jews. Who were they? Where did they go? How do they look like? Were they like the Israeli soldiers killing the Palestinians? And more questions were that were held hostage in my mind for a long time. I let them free. I asked everyone knew an Iraqi Jew. I started with my grandmother. I sat on the brown wooden sofa in her kitchen. We talked for hours. Eventually she cried when she remembered her best Jewish friend Clair who was her neighbor as well. She was one of the thousands of Iraqi Jews who were forced to leave Iraq in the 1940s. She told me all about them. They were like us, Iraqis. She told me that they were very famous of the trade of cloths. My grandfather was a wealthy man whose main cloth merchants were Jewish. He owned several factories of sewing clothes. She narrated stories of how my mother, uncles and aunts had so many Jewish friends who used to go together to the same schools.

From Baghdad Treasure.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Fragments of my non-academic life

I’ve been drinking lots of coffee. Here, the smallest size is about a pint. I’ve got addicted to the mochas from downstairs. Oh, the food at Northwestern is great by the way – you can get fresh sushi at the student café. Ha ha ha, Essex students eat your hearts out, deep fried at S Express. The other thing one can do is just steal food. The school of business has all these gatherings for recruitment or, I dunno, “dilemmas of leadership in the salted snack market”. And they leave their delicious buffet food out while they go and discuss these important topics. So starving PhD students come along and snaffle it. You could basically live and eat free at Kellogg. Not so much red wine as Essex though.

I decided to live in Rogers Park which is just over the border in Chicago from Evanston. My flatmate is a standup comedian. The first ten days I moved in the other guys had not yet moved out and were camped out on the sofa. They were nice people but they also invited their mate to come and stay, a chap who did not vastly impress me and who, by his own admission, had spent $10000 filming his girlfriend breaking up with him. It’ll be hitting the box office soon, folks, get queuing. Working title is The Least Heterosexual Man in Chicago and you can imagine the dialogue: “put the videocamera down or I’ll break up with you, gimpwit”. Anyway, eventually they went, taking all the furniture with them, and we ate off polystyrene boxes for the next two weeks until we were given some furniture by a kindly Progressive Catholic (apparently this is not a euphemism for lesbian).

Seems like everyone in Chicago is a playwright or an artist or something equally disgraceful. Decline of the Midwest. As you know, there is nobody as ruthlessly self-interested as an artist – corporate lawyers have nothing on them. Anyway, as I was saying my flatmate is a standup comedian and also a video editor and one of his projects is to do funeral videos for dead people. So his demo is himself. He made a video of himself, with a slow closeup of his smiling face while REM plays in the background, then slow motion pictures of him having fun with his mates. Convincing stuff.

We kitted out the living room with a funky computer-assisted stereo, you can just login remotely and play MP3s through the speakers. Very sweet.

Gosh, I just got my grades. V exciting. I now have an official Grade Point Average. Always wanted one of those.

Right, as you can probably guess we just had the departmental Christmas party so I’m going to review an article. More later.


So I promised Mar that I would write and describe how America has been. I thought I'd do it here and point people at it via email.

First of all, sorry I haven't been more talkative before... but work here is intense. The term finished last Friday with a 3 hour exam. Before that I'd had 5 other exams, plus 3 homeworks every week - most of which took at least a day to complete, often more. Not much time for anything but work; I've barely seen Chicago, for example.

The upside is that you learn a lot. I am slowly putting together a toolkit for formal theory. My scorecard so far - this is all on the mathematical side of things, ignoring the economics and political science for the moment:

unconstrained optimization [X]
constrained optimization [X]
linear programming [X]
fixed point theorems [X]
convexity [ ]
differential equations [ ]
probability [ ]
statistics [ ]

Of course there's lots more (and the last two are big gaps which I may not even begin to fill this year). But all these things should help. The next stage is really to get practice in using these things to do social science. So next term I'm taking a credit in independent study with David Austen-Smith. I'm hoping to look at how migration interacts with politics in non-democratic settings. Right now I'm getting a reading list of papers together: the idea is, I present them to him and we discuss them. I also want to try to develop a model myself.

So this is all very exciting. The people I mostly hang around with here are the first year economics PhDs. They are smart, usually straight out of school and with a variety of backgrounds - in particular, different mathematical levels, some are almost as bad as me, and some are going to graduate level algebraic topology courses in the Maths department. (I've had a fabulous course in real analysis from the same place.) Nobody is really sure what they are going to write about - all are too busy doing coursework. Thesis comes later.

I'm also getting to see economics from the inside. It's very interesting. We tend to think of economics as imperialists - well, my preferred metaphor is barbarians from the steppes. In fact they are facing a bit of an internal challenge themselves, from more empirical work in experimental economics which tends to link up with psychology. There is also, as far as I can see, a feeling in the discipline that "economic theory" (i.e. the very abstract mathematical modelling side of things) has got rather out of control and out of touch. (I'm sure the feeling's not universal.) Interesting to see what will happen from here on. Despite all this, my mental map of the discipline is still very unclear. Something like: neoclassical revival 60s-70s [?], then along come game theory and economics of information, plus experimental economics. But I don't know the exact order of events, or how all these pieces fit together, or how they fit with e.g. public choice and political economy.

So that's the academic side. Soon I'll blog about the rest. But in all honesty, the academic side is 80% of it.

(Oh, one footnote... now term has finished I'm doing some of my own work, purely empirical... and I think I have an interesting positive result! w00t.)

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Im Falschen gibt es kein rechtes Leben

24stepstoliberty's reaction to the Baker-Hamilton report (via

The title is an Adorno quote and means "there is no right living in falsehood", an allusion to an old idea of (medieval?) ethics: once you commit one sin, there may be no right course of action.

Limits of rational ignorance

The theory and evidence that voters are rationally ignorant is probably the single most important discovery in political science.

Nevertheless, it has its limits. (The link takes you to Amazon's top sellers. The Iraq Study Group's report is currently #30 on its first day of release.)

Monday, 4 December 2006

first snow in Chicago

and Owen, my flatmate and multitalented video editor/stand up comedian, has taken a picture of me enjoying it

thanks Owen

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

only works a small subset of people

The world's greatest chat up line, for economists only:

"In equilibrium, you're coming home with me."

Contributed by Guy Arie.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Norman Gall exhibition

Norman Gall, a friend of my Dad's from Sao Paulo, has an exhibition of photographs of Latin America:
Litvinenko's last statement.

Had a lovely thanksgiving up at Door County, a beautiful peninsula sticking into Lake Michigan on the edge of the world.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Have you coughed blood yet?

I was grumbling to Rolando about how hard the work was. He smiled and told me that during his PhD in Biology, he had to stay up to watch some vital experiments which needed 24 hour monitoring. He didn't sleep for three days. During that time, he caught pneumonia and began to cough up blood.


Monday, 20 November 2006

Help bring postcodes into the public domain are trying to create a public domain database of postcodes, so you don't need to buy the info off the Post Office for a few £1000. Go and help them by clicking on the map and entering your postcode.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Milton Friedman died

Bummer. When I was a teenager I remember reading Free to Choose at more or less the same time as Marx. As someone drily remarked, they are rather difficult to reconcile.

Friday, 3 November 2006

More maths

Just a quickie in between preparing for social choice theory midterm.

Guy Arie told me this one.

Suppose you throw a bunch of ants on to a one yard long stick. The ants run along the stick at one yard per minute. When an ant meets another ant, s/he changes direction and runs the other way.

How long before all of the ants run off the stick?


As Guy said, stop thinking that ants have personality.

If one ant goes on to the stick, he runs off within (at most) one minute.

But if lots of ants are bumping into each other and changing direction, the problem gets much more complex....

Until you stop thinking that ants have personality. When two ants meet, both change direction. So just swap the labels on the ants and imagine that they ran straight through each other. In other words, them meeting doesn't make any difference. All the ants still run off the stick in (at most) one minute.

This is a slightly more advanced version of the famous "what if your dog is running between Donegal and Kerry" question.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

maths discourse

I love the rhetoric of maths. You have to write extremely simply, no letting the words get in the way of the concepts. You can talk about "climbing a peak" (getting to an important result). And sometimes unexpectedly, when you think you are halfway through the proof: "and now we're done." And it's like turning a corner and seeing the view. Or another thing: after some difficult proof in the book, they'll toss in some massively important result as a two-line lemma.

Lemma. Proposition. Theorem. Claim. Proof. Hah!

back at school

Just got back from Lucy's fabulous wedding. I thought I would be really glum to be back in the US but actually it hasn't been that bad. Next thing up is the midterm on Thursday. Yes, we have midterm exams!

In fact being here in general is like being back at school. I hand in weekly homework, they mark it with a red pen. And we have exams which you have to do on little A5 exercise books, like when you were 12. The big difference obviously is that the questions have got harder in the meantime. So both us political scientists are quaking in our boots at the thought of being shamed by all those practitioners of the premier social science.

Mum has a robust attitude to all of this, however. A dry comment on the phone to a friend of hers: "David is studying political science, which seems to be nothing but Higher Mathematics". Or as she once said: "but darling, isn't all this mathematical stuff just a fad?"

Before you laugh, note that Ma is usually Right In The End.

Eid mubarak

Eid mubarak to all bloggers in Iraq, and also to my Mum's friends from Pakistan, especially the Zaki family.

Friday, 20 October 2006

Great survey of Iraqi bloggers

From Treasure of Baghdad . Includes a bunch of different answers to the question "Do you think the war was worth it?"

Monday, 16 October 2006

Have we all gone mad?

Some of the top-rated comments on the BBC website about this teaching assistant who wore the veil:

"As citizens we can only reasonably claim rights if we accept the obligation to show consideration to others. In this country the vast majority belong to a culture which is deeply ill at ease with the veil. The onus must be on the small minority who wish to dress this way to accommodate to the prevailing norm, just as western women are expected to dress discretely in Moslem countries."

This was the top rated comment. Actually, rights are inalienable, and we have them whether we are considerate or not. What I find astounding, also, is the implicit idea that we ought to judge ourselves by the standards of Saudi Arabia, or how minorities are tolerated in, say, Iran or Pakistan.

"Yes they should take it off,and when they go on a bus the driver cannot see if it is that person that is on a bus pass, this is never right if they want to live in this way they should go to a country where it is there way of life."

Now this man is really getting to the heart of things. It's the muslims, they only wear the veil to get the free bus passes! I've lived in this country all my life you know...

But my all time favourite:

"Its perfectly simple. No one in Britain should be allowed to put themselves in a position whereby others cannot see them or fully identify them at all times."


Just wow.

Words fail me, so I'll cut and paste some John Stuart Mill, and add a few big angry italics:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. ... Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong....

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest."

So anyway, that is the kind of country I want to live in. What kind of country these people want to live in, I don't know. Heaven knows I am no cultural relativist. But this is surely just a straightforward issue of individual freedom. If you can't cope with the fact that people are different from you, if you can't live in society alongside people whose fundamental opinions and values you dislike, fear or despise - then you are not ready to live in a modern society.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Vice Guide to Chicago

Someone gave me a copy of this essential document. For a taster, here's the Art subsection in its entirety:


Art is for dorks.

Sunday, 1 October 2006

NWU, Evanston, Illinois, America

Thought I should give you an update. This will probably take a bit of time to write - I have a lot of new impressions, and am also very busy. (Update: very busy.)

Northwestern: the course is good, and very intensive. Essentially I'm with the first year econ PhDs. They work them very hard here. I have about 12 hours of lectures a week. These require doing the reading. If you don't do the reading, in most cases you will get little or nothing out of the lecture. It is complicated mathematical stuff: the foundations of microeconomics, techniques in linear algebra, real analysis in mathematics and so forth. These are books where you read a few pages at a time. Then there are the problem sets: three a week, the fourth course doesn't seem to have them. These can take anything up to a day to do. A typical cycle is: look at them on your own, then meet up with a group to swap ideas, insights and solutions (for most courses this is allowed), then write up solutions and maybe finally another group meeting to talk over what you've got.

End result: most days and evenings, I'm busy. I probably worked harder during my final year at Cambridge, or (in different ways) while at the Simon Community or running my business. But this is the hardest academic work I've done for a long time.

A large part of me loves this. I always liked school, doing exams etc.... I was that kind of kid. Still am. And I find the problems intellectually fascinating, even though they involve no cutting-edge ideas - it's all just "the basics" in terms of what you need to be an economist/mathematician/positive political theorist. I can practically feel my brain expanding. And a lot of the other students are much better than me at this stuff. (Damn!)

Another large part of me is knackered. I need to get into a work rhythm that gives me time for myself. At the moment I find myself waking up and still being tired... coming home late... not having time for exercise... and so forth. This is not really a good or sustainable lifestyle.

More broadly... Evanston. Evanston reminds me of Wimbledon. I am moving across the city limits to Rogers Park in a week. Roger's Park is supposedly a dodgy area but I tend to think that American cities are not that bad.

At the moment I am living in Evanston with two beautiful blondes called Blaze and Cheyenne, who like to run around the house naked. When I get home they lick me all over and one of them puts her head between my legs. I will try and post some HOT NAKED PICTURES of these lovelies.... I can hear one of them panting as I type this. Woof!

America. Mmph. I have got Minima Moralia out of the library.* It's hard to be an immigrant. And me... well, I'm a cultural elitist in the land of Disney, an agnostic among the godly, and a drinker in a place where beer is £4 a pint. But.... Every year a lot of people from the UK come here. They must know something. Maybe I am just grumbling because in the UK I am quite a privileged middle class person and here, it's a stand-on-your-own-two-feet place and you are, as Paddy McAloon would say, only as good as the last great thing you've done. Maybe it's just a curve I'm going through. I left the UK thinking good riddance to smug old Auntie and it's embarrassing how soon I started downloading Radio 4 podcasts....

Random fact: David Austen-Smith does Tae Kwon Do.

* Theodor Adorno wrote Minima Moralia at a particularly bleak time of his life, as a newly arrived exile from Germany during World War II. It's a classic of bitter cultural analysis written by a hypersensitive man who is clearly missing his home very much. But... he stayed on and even, I guess, found some kind of accommodation with mainstream American academia: his empirical work on the authoritarian personality, with Horkheimer, unearthed a fox in social psychology which continued to run for some time.

Sunday, 24 September 2006

Not a joke

For real, from the Illinois legal code:

720 ILCS 5/11-7 Adultery
"Any person who has sexual intercourse with another not his spouse commits adultery, if the behavior is open and notorious, and the person is married and the other person involved in such intercourse is not his spouse; or the person is not married and knows that the other person involved in such intercourse is married." Adultery is a class A misdemeanor.

720 ILCS 5/11-8 Fornication
"Any person who has sexual intercourse with another not his spouse commits fornication if the behavior is open and notorious." Fornication is a class B misdemeanor.

Wow. This is the stuff I would expect to see on a "crazy American laws" round robin email. Unmarried sex is illegal here? I guess the laws aren't applied much but, er, wtf?

Thursday, 21 September 2006

The Bet

I gave Nick Smith his keys back - thanks for the loan of your apartment dude. Perhaps I ought to take this chance to record a bet me and Nick have. After a year of close observation (we shared an office when he was in Essex) I came to the conclusion that Nick was moving Rightwards. (Hurrah!) So when I was last in Chicago, at MPSA, I bet him that by 2020 [I think?] he would have voted Republican. If I win the bet, he has to buy a year's subscription to Socialist Worker - which by then will obviously be a huge punishment. On the other hand, if I lose, I have to buy the subscription - which is a huge punishment already.

Right now I'm pessimistic about my chances. Bush's strategy for reelection appears to be to use human rights as a wedge issue. That is, not only is he playing the terrorism card; he's also being extreme enough for it to be a defining difference between him and his opponents. They care about human rights for terrorists, while he's focussed on protecting Americans. Nice.

... and just one more.

No more Habeas Corpus for people in Guantanamo if the current administration gets its way.

The dangerous profession of software engineer

On a similar note to the previous post, but a little more clearcut, here's a NY Times story about a Canadian software engineer who, on false information provided by the Mounties, was detained by the CIA as he changed planes in New York, handed over to the Syrians and tortured. The most damning chunk actually comes from a US official:
"American officials have not discussed the case publicly. But in an interview last year, a former official said on condition of anonymity that the decision to send Mr. Arar to Syria had been based chiefly on the desire to get more information about him and the threat he might pose. The official said Canada did not intend to hold him if he returned home."

The Mohammed Salah case

After class I turned up to what seemed an interesting talk. Mohammed Salah is being tried in Chicago for racketeering. A member of his defence team, and his wife, came to describe the case. The headline was "Justifying Torture in American Courts" - the reason being that the prime evidence against Mr Salah was obtained by confession in an Israeli prison, after he was allegedly tortured.

I left the talk with no strong belief in Mr Salah's innocence, despite the defence lawyer's impassioned speech. (He was, incidentally, among several defendants found civilly liable for the death of an American citizen killed in Israel by a Hamas attack. The trial took place 2 weeks after 9/11. ) The question is whether the court will allow evidence gathered under duress. More worrying for me is that the judge has heard prosecution evidence in secret without the defence being allowed to challenge it, and that evidence that supports Salah's claim of torture has been ruled inadmissible. Is this how liberal democracies ought to do things?

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

I feel so manly

I just replaced the screen in my Portege R100 laptop. I used the instructions from Screentekinc - everything was much as described there. There are four screws under rubber pads at the top of the R100 screen, and six under small square pads around the bottom and the sides. All of these can be removed with a sharp knife - I used a Stanley knife. You'll need a very small Phillips screwdriver to unscrew the screws. (Or you can just use the Stanley knife. But you'll probably damage the screws and your blade. Yeah, that's what I did.)

After that I unclicked the plastic surround to my screen - it requires a bit of a pull and is best started from the bottom left, once you've got the first bit the rest comes easily. Then you are face to face with the screen. The rest is pretty much as in the tutorial. You pull out the data plug (having first removed any sticky tape holding it down), and the inverter plug which provides the power. (You did remove the battery, right?) To remove the inverter plug it's much easier to unscrew the inverter first (it's the long thin circuitry on the right hand side of the screen, held in place by a single screw). Then you have to pull hard and use your fingernails to get the inverter plug out.

Once that is all done you just replace your screen, plug the new screen back into the inverter and the data connection, sticky tape it up, slot your plastic surround back in and screw everything back in place. Pah! Child's play.

Monday, 18 September 2006

Party strategies tournament results

The results from Fowler and Laver's Tournament of Party Strategies (previously blogged) are up here. I was chuffed to see that my strategy (Raptor) came in 8th - just beating Hunter, the pre-submitted strategy on which it was based. They plan to rerun the tournament using only those strategies which beat Hunter. I'm optimistic that with the smaller set of strategies used, Raptor (which uses a predefined step size to recognize and cooperate with conspecifics) will continue to do well.

Interestingly, Fowler and Laver would also like to develop evolutionary rules that allow successful party strategies to evolve and mutate. They worry about how to parametrize party strategies. One option would be to use genetic programming (not to be confused with genetic algorithms): each party strategy is a parse tree of R statements, and each round, the parse tree is set to work on the inputs, and outputs a new location. Mutations could consist of prunings and duplications of the tree, as well as adding new branches.

Cosmic injustice

Term is about to start. Clemency just came on gmail chat and told me she's got a new job working for these guys. I do economic theory. Clemency eats organic chocolate cake. Go figure.

Friday, 15 September 2006


Madly busy - flathunting plus Maths class - but have found time to get Skype. If anyone else has it, drop me a line with your username.

Friday, 1 September 2006


Well, this is the first time I have a few minutes to spare. I arrived hot off the plane and crashed at Nick Smith's place - thanks Nick. The following Monday, Math camp began at Northwestern and my first discovery was that Evanston is a solid 90 minute commute from Southside Chicago - minimum. Often, 2 hours. So I began desperately searching for an apartment. I've found a couple of possible places and meanwhile, a kind couple has agreed to put me up a little closer to Evanston. They have two golden labradors, one of whom has the amiable habit of putting her head through your legs and staying there.

Math camp. As you may know, in Math camp you are not allowed to say your name, instead you have to say "this mathematician":


Math camp is quite hardcore. One class from 9 until 12 with a ten minute break, then lunch, then problem set solutions at 1 pm, then you spend the afternoon trying to solve the next day's problems. It's particularly fun when you then have to look for apartments and commute 2 hours home.

I thought that Kellogg would be full of ruthless MBA sharks (yay), but they haven't arrived yet. Instead, everyone is a PhD student, but some of them are kind of business PhDs - a concept that makes my head hurt. You mean, you're a PhD student, but at some point you might make actual money?

Met up with John O'Brien last night. Some of you may remember John from my 29th birthday party - think extremely loud American. We went out with 6 firemen from San Francisco.
Let me rephrase that. We went out heterosexually, with 6 heterosexual firemen from San Francisco. Whenever somebody said "what do you guys do?" they all said "WE'RE FIREMEN" and I just nodded vaguely. Great night.

This mathematician was late for Math camp this morning ("drop and give me 100 definite integrals!")

I've got a temporary office with a computer and (at the moment) nobody else in it. Booya!

APSA is here and I'm missing it. I want to know the results of the Tournament of Party Strategies. Me and Thomas Pluemper both submitted something. I really want to see the complete ranking....

Lucy Reid is getting married. W00t! (Please try not to screw it up like some people we know, Lucy. Thanks. Nothing personal, Tzvi.)

Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Thursday, 24 August 2006


Valéria asked me whether I thought the British empire was a good thing.

There are all sorts of interesting things one can say about the good and bad things the British did. But ultimately to answer a question like this, which is a very reasonable one to ask, we need to compare what actually happened with what would have happened supposing that the Empire had not come into being. Which of these two courses of history would have been better? This is just the same sort of question political scientists are always asking and answering. For example, after performing a logit regression (a piece of statistics where the dependent variable is binary, for example, did a particular person turn out to vote or not?) we may say: if this person had been a woman instead of a man, but everything else had been the same - if she had had the same social class, education, religiosity and so on - she would have been ten per cent more likely to vote. Maybe in some cases the regression will be misspecified or based on inaccurate data or whatever. But in principle this can be valid.

If our historical knowledge - the application of our social science knowledge - is good enough, we can answer counterfactuals about history. For example, we can guess that Hong Kong would have been worse off if it had been colonized by the Portuguese and not by the British. We can make this guess without a deep understanding of history, because Macau, a small island rather like Hong Kong, actually was colonized by the Portuguese, and has not to date been nearly as economically successful as Hong Kong. Again, our guess is not infallible. Perhaps there is something we don't know that is specific to Hong Kong. But it is a reasonable guess.

Can we make the same kind of assessment of the Empire as a whole?

To do that we need to imagine an alternative history in which the British Empire does not come into being. Several problems at once present themselves. First, we need a coherent story. Why do the British fail to colonize large parts of the world in the 19th century? Well, they could have been unable to, if they had not had an industrial revolution. But now we are answering a very different question: what would have happened if the British had not had an industrial revolution? The consequences for human history would have been much broader than the question of empire. Or perhaps, the British simply chose not to pursue their empire. But then we run into a worry about psychological plausibility. For humans not to pursue power and empire when they can runs counter to the general tendency of most of history. If we assume this is what happened, are we assuming a different kind of humanity? Gentler and kinder, or simply more prone to take its own religious ideology (the Sermon on the Mount, say) seriously? Again, that's a different question from Valéria's question about the Empire.

It is not that we cannot coherently imagine histories without a British Empire. We can imagine many. The problem is that none of them will cut the Empire neatly out of the world without cutting a great deal more besides. Another problem is that there are very many of these histories: we do not have a useful criterion for choosing which one to use as a point of moral comparison. And many of these histories will be incomplete (no use for moral evaluation) without answering a lot of questions which, again, are irrelevant to what Valéria wants to know. For example, we could imagine that the French defeat the British in the eighteenth century struggle for power. Then we will need to know whether there is a counterfactual French empire, how far it will extend, and what it will be like. Our answers to these questions will determine how we evaluate the counterfactual history. Finally, when we construct our alternative history, we need to know what the British themselves were doing (instead of having an empire). After all, they were important actors in world history. To keep our counterfactual relevant, we will need them to be doing almost exactly what they actually did, except without having an empire. But this is rather like imagining a vertebrate except without its backbone. The empire was central to what the British were doing at the time. Again, we can always think of other things they might have done, but the problem is that there are too many of these alternative courses of action, all of them with widely differing impacts on history and human happiness.

Small-scale "what ifs" are answerable and important. (That's why I believe in social science and not just in, say, narrative history.) It's easy to believe that large scale "what ifs", which look just the same grammatically, must be equally meaningful. But these considerations lead me to believe they are not. At some point of scale, we lose the ability to construct the right kind of counterfactual.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Fullah dolls

The Middle Eastern barbie. Check out the veil.

From via
Laurence, you weren't ambling, you were flânant.

back in São Paulo

... after 4 days in Rio. Rio is beautiful - Ipanema beach has big green waves which throw up explosions of powdery surf and the whole city has huge hills growing through it. But frankly São Paulo is bigger, and as far as cities go I'm a slut for size.

There seems to be a typical Carioca (Rio inhabitant) face, a kind of pleasant squinting expression. Paulistanos claim that this is a Lamarckian adaptation, from screwing up their faces to figure out more ways to extract money from São Paulo. I'm just repeating what I've heard, you understand.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

In Fortaleza

... in an internet cafe, reviewing a Political Science article. Two cubicles down, a couple of teenagers are looking at porn.


I am sure that nobody who really knows me could ever describe me as misanthropic. Still, it is only fair to record that shortly after writing my last entry, I had a very delicious pizza with the nice and interesting proprietress of an art shop. So not everything in "Jeri" can be bad. And she also told me that between March and May things are much quieter and the beach is a beautiful white. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, 14 August 2006

Jeri (Not Safe For Work)

Spent the last four days in Jericoacoara. Once an idyllic fishing village on Brazil's Northern coast, it was discovered by the hippies and is now a thriving tourist resort - thriving on its own evil spume, that is. Every evening the visitors to Jericoacoara gather on top of a nearby sand dune to watch the sun set. This is a diluted relic of an earlier tradition in which, after sundown, the hippies would have a communal circle jerk and then kill and eat one of their number in a bonding ritual to prevent outsiders ever learning about "The Beach". Well, it hasn't worked and now the town is full of beach bums, preening fools and creepy older men with their teenage girlfriends. The word Jericoacoara is often shortened to "Jeri" in much the same unspeakably self-satisfied way that Wivenhoe's inhabitants call it Wiv. Coincidentally, "Geri" is also the name of a singer and former Spice Girl who, like Jericoacoara, fucking sucks.

The first people I met in "Jeri" were three American sex tourists who kindly showed me their holiday pictures, of fellatio by some poor godforsaken puta from Fortaleza. Thanks, fuckers. The second person was a gentleman from Sao Paulo who had spent twenty years cycling around Brazil in order to discover his culture. At the end of this process he had worked out that he enjoyed reggae music and smoking dope. I am sure it will surprise you to learn that his conversation had a pecuniary goal: his ultimate aim was to "mend his bicycle" and with this in mind, he attempted to sell me a bracelet made of anaconda skin. I hope that by now a kind of general picture is forming in your mind.

In fairness it must be said that an hour's walk East from the town there is a solid mile of fabulously beautiful beach surrounded by rock formations and beaten by the Atlantic surf. You will have it all to yourself because none of the tourists in Jeri can get the brain cells together to leave the town beach, which, by the way, has been invaded by some kind of black, stinking seaweed, perhaps meant by God as some kind of metaphor.

Saturday, 12 August 2006

More insight

I've worked it out: Brazilians are cockneys.

  • They pronounce words the same way. Ask a black cab driver to say Costa del Sol and it'll be just the way a Brazilian would pronounce it, i.e. "de'w so'w".
  • The Portuguese for "hi" is "oi" which must be short for "Oi oi my son!"
  • Brazilians from the Northeast love forro, which is basically just knees-up Mavver Brahn with a funny beat.

Thursday, 10 August 2006

Like looking at the future

Here's one of my (superficial but hopefully fresh) impressions. Imagine giving Britain's metropolitan elite [TM] - the chattering classes, the Islington set - total social control for twenty years, and imagine that their ideas actually worked. Well, that's Brazil in certain aspects. For example, it's ridiculously racially integrated. There is a complete chaos of ethnic types, and the melting pot seems genuinely to have melted here - compared to, say, the US. I don't say there's no racial injustice or discrimination. But there are no hard and fast colour lines.

Or take sexuality. In a town - OK, a university town - of one of the poorest states of the Northeast, they hold an annual gay pride parade, by golly. Picture that in our Northeast? Well... eesh, perhaps.

In this particular way, Brazil seems like a glimpse into our future, or at least like science fiction.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Joaoaoaoa Pessoaoaoa

Meh. Blogger ate the first version of my beautiful insights. So, quickly and dirtily... I arrived in Joao Pessoa yesterday morning. On the bus from Salvador I met a student returning from some kind of goddamn Communist conference. I tried to convince him of the error of his ways (with my 20 words of Portuguese) and he ended up inviting me to crash at his. This leads eventually to a night of crazy dancing with a bunch of students at the State University of Paraiba... forro (very fast side-to-side butt-shaking a deux) followed by a ?? quadrille which is kind of like a barn dance except they shouted out all the moves themselves. Big love to Marcos, Junior and Mariana e todos os outros... Marcos whipped up a poem which I will reproduce here without trying to translate:

Vejo o trabalhador
hoje como companheiro
Ombro a ombro caminhames
Seguindo nosso roteiro

Caminhamos sempre juntos
Olhando para horizonte
Contemplando a Utopia
De um dia sermos iguias
Com as nossas diferencas

not bad for five minutes eh? Marcos, fui muito legal de conhecer-te e seus amigos. Espero que nos nos encontramos de novo... 'ta bem... Dave o capitalist "Chicago Boy".

Monday, 7 August 2006

in Salvador bus station

... arrived from Lencois and heading up to Joao de Pessoa in a couple of days. I did 2 days trekking in Lencois (the Chiapada Diamantida) which is fab. beautiful and very hard work.

Since leaving my friends in Sao Paulo I seem to have been sucked into the "traveller" circuit a bit. Lots of nice people but the culture pisses me off slightly. Joe Tourist has two weeks holiday and decides how much to spend on it. These young people have X amount of money and try to make it last as long as possible, which inevitably means they end up haggling bitterly over, like, 25 pence. And they smoke dope. Meh. I dunno, am probably just a crusty old man but occasionally I feel they need a HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA...

Monday, 31 July 2006

in Brazil

I arrived in Sao Paulo on Friday, four hours late after a traumatic flight with American Airlines. Like an experiment in 'how crap can we be and still survive in a capitalist economy?' We were stuck for three hours on the runway at JFK and nobody told us what was happening. The food, which used to be halfway decent, is now just "chicken or beef?" and vegetarian options are not possible. I assume these guys are zombies, waiting to go bust under pressure from cheapo airline competition and the weight of their debts, pensions & salaries.

Brazil is awesome. The food is delicious, people are friendly, my Portuguese is terrible. Being a political obsessive I am asking everybody about Lula. The outside world is pretty favourable to him, seeing him as one of the "good Left" as opposed to the old Chavez-style populists. Everyone here, by contrast, seems very disappointed. The corruption scandals were really serious - vote buying, links to crime etc. On the other hand, there are no very inspiring alternatives and I have not yet heard any really cogent arguments against the PT's policies. The problem if anything is what they are not doing (fixing the police and education). People believe Lula will win again and it's hard to disagree.

On Saturday morning, Norman Gall from the Fernand Braudel Institute in Sao Paulo invited me to one of their reading circles. A dozen teenagers from state schools were reading Adam Smith in Portuguese. It was inspiring to see so much talent, dedication and enthusiasm. People here become very gloomy when you ask them about politics or society. I see a lot of positives. There's tremendous energy in Sao Paulo. Little charismatic churches have popped up all over the place, scandalizing educated humanists with their unsophisticated approach (anyone can become a priest without even having studied theology!) When you stop at traffic lights, a kid will jump out in front of your car and juggle tennis balls, more or less expertly. English schools are everywhere.

BTW, for a good read on Brazil today check out Norman's paper Lula and Mephistopheles. Starts from the corruption scandals and broadens out to diagnose the whole society.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Essex vaut un blog

In between very dull data importing, I thought I could find time to mention Essex. I am about to leave and spend a year at Northwestern.

I've been at two universities in my life, and have had an incredibly happy time at both of them.
Among the great things this place has are psycho ducks and rabbits, Wivenhoe (aka Wiv, The Hoe, Thundercatshoe to various deranged residents), the Wivenhoe trail, and the main building , which is cunningly designed as an ornamental maze. Then there's the amazingly international student body: a sample of young, determined and smart people from all over the world.

The best thing though is the academic community, which is closeknit, friendly, unpretentious and professional. People here are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. The seminars are great - informal but tough. The PhD students are a very varied and interesting bunch. And Essex is imbued with the spirit of the 60s, from the not-beautiful-but-just-about-lovable architecture to the democratic optimism.

Things I won't miss? The food. Not that it's bad.... I just feel that I have eaten enough Cafe Vert paninis for one lifetime.

See y'all in a year. I'm off to Chicago!

"Are you ready for the city? Is the city ready for you?"
Futureheads The City is Here for You to Use

interpolating data in R

Here's a little function that does linear interpolation of data. For example, if you have a matrix like

[,1] [,2] [,3] [,4] [,5] [,6] [,7]
[1,] NA 1 NA NA 6 NA NA
[2,] NA 8 NA NA 5 NA NA
[3,] NA 1 NA NA 4 NA NA
[4,] NA 7 NA NA 7 NA NA
[5,] NA 9 NA NA 1 NA NA

it will be turned into

[,1] [,2] [,3] [,4] [,5] [,6] [,7]
[1,] 1 1 2.666667 4.333333 6 6 6
[2,] 8 8 7.000000 6.000000 5 5 5
[3,] 1 1 2.000000 3.000000 4 4 4
[4,] 7 7 7.000000 7.000000 7 7 7
[5,] 9 9 6.333333 3.666667 1 1 1

Columns 1, 6 and 7 have just been copied from columns 2 and 5 - i.e. this doesn't do extrapolation. Columns 3 and 4 have been interpolated linearly.

The columns of the input matrix must be either all valid, or all NA. Otherwise it will get confused. Fixes welcome.

do.interpolate <- function (m) {
if (any([,1]))) m[] <- rep(m[,ncol(m)], ncol(m))
else if (any([,ncol(m)]))) m[] <- rep(m[,1], ncol(m))
else {
p <- ncol(m)-1
m <- as.matrix(m[,c(1, ncol(m))]) %*% matrix(c(p:0/p, 0:p/p), nrow=2,

return (m)

# m is a matrix with missing data
mass.interpolate <- function (m) {
for (c in 1:ncol(m))
if (any([,c])) & ! all([,c])))
stop("column ", colnames(m)[c], " of matrix m is incomplete")
valid <- c(1, which(apply(m, 2, function (x) ! any(
rvalid <- c(valid[-1], ncol(m))

for (i in 1:length(valid)) {
if (valid[i] == rvalid[i]) next # if left or rightmost cols are valid
m[ ,valid[i]:rvalid[i] ] <- do.interpolate(m[ ,valid[i]:rvalid[i],


Usage: mass.interpolate(my.matrix)

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

‘Big Brother’ eyes make us act more honestly

‘Big Brother’ eyes make us act more honestly

From the article:
"We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks – or not, because no one is watching.
"In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box....
"... In previous experiments, people consistently appeared to behave more generously than they needed to for their own self-interest, even when told their actions were anonymous. This has led an influential school of economists to argue that altruism in humans is innate, rather than being based on cynical self-interest.
"But if just a photocopied pair of eyes can treble honesty, the Newcastle team suspects that these previous experiments may somehow have been spoiled by subliminal cues that made people feel they were being watched. "

Sunday, 25 June 2006

One more juicy R tip

If you're like me, you get tired of writing:

mydata[complex.row.condition, complex.column.condition] <- mydata[complex.row.condition, complex.column.condition]+1

or similar. One solution is:

crc <- complex.row.condition
ccc <- complex.column.condition

which saves writing out the complex conditions more than once. But it also makes it very cluttered to read and unclear what you are doing.

My alternative solution is to place this function definition in your file:

inplace <- function (f, arg=1) eval.parent(call("<-",substitute(f)[[arg+1]], f),2)

Now instead of writing, e.g.

foo[bar,baz] <- foo[bar,baz]*2

you can just write

inplace(foo[bar,baz] *2)

or instead of

foo[bar,baz] <- paste(foo[bar,baz], 1:10)


inplace(paste(foo[bar,baz], 1:10))

The second argument of the inplace function allows you to use it when your target for assignment is not the first argument of your inner function. For example:

inplace(sub("old", "new", foo[bar,baz]), 3)

is the same as

foo[bar,baz] <- sub("old", "new", foo[bar,baz])

What remains valid in Marxist economics?

Tyler Cowen has a go at answering this question and comes up with five ideas. They are a bit focused on early Marx for me. I would suggest:

  1. His focus on explaining institutions rather than just assuming them. This is still key to modern political economy.
  2. His class-based framework for understanding politics. This is quite a simple schema: the bourgeoisie can ally with the aristocracy or the proletariat. It's still enormously productive. Modern political science, since Olson, has been much less happy with the assumption that classes, which are groups, can automatically solve their collective action problem and come together to defend their interests. But humans seem to be better at this than theory would predict: in particular, they're willing to punish each other to maintain group norms, even at cost to themselves.
  3. Ideology. To find out why an idea is popular it is always worth asking: whose interest is it in?

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

copied and pasted from the UCEA website

I know I'm slightly behind the times with this. The recent AUT strike has interested me, partly because my landlord is a keen supporter. I wanted to find proper time-series data on university lecturers' pay scales, but it would just take too long to put it together - unfortunately, the national statistics web interface is not much use.

Anyway, this is just nicked from a UCEA (employers') press release, so if you disagree, feel free to say why. My italics.

11. During the 1980s and 1990s, declining university funding did not allow for real terms
improvements in academic pay. However, since 2000/01, the sector’s finances have
started to improve. New pay negotiating machinery was introduced at the same time
and average earnings for academic staff have increased by 20.3% since 2001. Over
the same period, the unit of funding per student (representing the income universities
and colleges of higher education get per student they teach) has increased by just
under 16%.
12. In real terms (deflated by the RPI), since 2001 the pay of higher education teaching
professionals has increased by 8.7% compared with 3.9% for all employees, and 6.2%
for all professional occupations.
13. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the average annual earnings of
full-time ‘higher education teaching professionals’ were £40,657 in 2005, placing
academics in the top 20% of earners in the UK. That compares with national average
earnings of £28,210 for all full-time employees, and £36,894 for all professional
Employers also contribute additional sums – equivalent to 14% of salaries – to
generous final salary pension schemes.

At Essex, the Trots or someone have posted up posters representing the lecturers as Oliver Twist and the Vice-Chancellor as a ruthless workhouse manager: "MORE PAY! I promised you more, but now I say NO!!"

I though point 13 in particular might provide a little context.
I hate to disturb all you bleeding heart liberals, but there is a simple statistical fact here: for three people to commit suicide on the same night, out of spontaneous, independent desperation, is a blinding coincidence. It seems pretty clear that these suicides were planned.

Having said that, the US rhetoric about an "act of war", driven by a half-conscious analogy with suicide-bombing, is disingenuous. You might as well call Jan Palach a terrorist. Perhaps the three deaths were planned as a protest against the Guantanamo regime. If so, as holding people indefinitely without trial is indeed unjust, cruel and totalitarian, it is hard not to sympathize with their point.

Monday, 12 June 2006

R tips

I've been working with large datasets in R and thought I would share some tips. Of interest to statisticians only!

1. On Windows, get tinn-R. You don't want to be working with the basic R editor. On Linux, use emacs or vi as you prefer - emacs is supposedly pretty good.

2. Record everything you do - don't rely on saving the history for this, as it will be indecipherably messy. The ideal is that anyone should be able to replicate your results, from publicly available data, just by running your file of commands. It also helps a lot when you lose data and have to go back and redo it.

3. You will probably end up with a lot of temporary variables. To know which variables you can safely delete, give temporary variables a dot at the end of their name, like:

for (yr. in dataset$years)

4. Save shortened versions of often-used commands in your Rprofile file (on Windows, this will be in c:\program files\R\R-\etc\

For example, I like to type hs instead of If I just put

hs <-

in, I will get an error on startup. This is because is in the utils package which is not loaded until after the Rprofile has been executed. So you have to be a little sneaky:

setHook(packageEvent("utils", "onLoad"), function (...) {
hs <<-

This means that when utils gets loaded, the function gets assigned to hs. The double-headed arrow, by the way, is for global assignment. Otherwise, the assignment would only happen in the body of our function, which would be useless.

5. You can create new operators. For example, I like to be able to type
1:5 %-% 3
and get c(1, 2, 4, 5), i.e. the numbers from 1 to 5 with 3 removed. Another line in my
"%-%" <<- setdiff
The setdiff function does what I want, but with %-% it's quicker and more intuitive to read. Similarly

"%like%" <<- function(x,y) grep(y,x, perl=T)
means I can type state[state$name %like% "Al.*",] and get data for Alabama and Alaska.

6. Statisticians tend to want to put everything in one huge table. So for example, if they have 50000 Eurobarometer respondents and they want to use respondent's nation's GDP as an independent variable, they'll create a big table with 50000 rows:
name | nation | GDP | ... other national variables
This is fine until you want to take the log of GDP and it takes the computer five minutes to create 50000 new variables, most of which are duplicates. Take a hint from database administration: keep national variables in a separate data frame, with one row for each nation. Then merge them once you have created all your independent variables, before you start running regressions.

(If you want to know more about how to create good databases, here's a good guide.)

7. Tired of typing brackets all the time to run simple commands? Here's a neat hack:
print.command <- function (x) {
default.args <- attr(x, "default.args")
if (! length(default.args)) default.args <- list()
print(, default.args, envir=parent.frame()))

class(ls) <- c("command", class(ls))
class(search) <- c("command", class(search))

Now you can type ls or search at the command line without brackets. The magic here is that the end result of any command line is printed, i.e. the print method is called on the object. If we give ls a class of "command", the function
print.command gets called when we evaluate ls. This then runs the function in the command line environment. To set up default arguments, do, e.g.:

attr(ls, "default.args") <- list(all=T)

It would be nice to be able to type fix foo instead of fix(foo), but I don't think it's possible. Correct me if you know better.

NEW 8. You don't have to save everything in one workspace. This is the easiest way to go at first, but when your data becomes large and takes minutes to load, you can separate it into different workspaces and load only the bits you need. To do this, instead of save.image, use

save(foo1, file="foo1.RData")
save(foo2, file="foo2.RData")

et cetera. You then load these in the normal way.

That's your lot! For more, check out or R tips. And of course, the occasionally grumpy but always enlightening R-help mailing list.


A friend of mine is involved in Backlash, which was set up to combat the UK Government's proposed legislation banning some kinds of extreme pornography. The site has some punchy arguments.

Monday, 15 May 2006

Clem's bluebell pictures

...from near Bristol. Wivenhoe wood is also looking pretty nice.

My entry for the Pimlott Prize

I wrote this for this year's Pimlott Prize, but didn't get shortlisted so I decided to put it up here. It's quite on the gloomy side but I am reasonably persuaded that the fundamental analysis is valid.

You can’t have your cake and eat it

A Lithuanian acquaintance, a graphic designer turned London scaffolder – better cash – took me on a tour of his neighbourhood, Plaistow in East London. We stopped at the Pakistani family whose home he shared, then visited the local beer hall. After a couple of pints, he asked me if I wanted to see “the whites-only pub”. We wandered in. It was dingy and depressing, not frightening (to me). A fat glum barmaid waited for customers. Silence and decay reigned.

The Left has decided that, after decades of peeling paint and lost custom, British identity needs a makeover – and a new, non-racist ownership. The renewed interest started with David Goodhart's essay in Prospect magazine, “Too Diverse?”, which claimed that too much cultural diversity could undermine solidarity, and that shared values might depend on a shared history. As radical Islam hit the headlines, the argument had legs. Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality attacked Goodhart as a “liberal Powellite”, but also broke with multiculturalism. Gordon Brown has weighed in with a speech on British identity. The debate has been lively and open-minded. Cultural relativism, the once-common view that value judgments could not cross cultural boundaries, is rarely heard. Neither are there calls for a return to bland ethnic uniformity. Instead, participants struggle to define Britishness as the core minimum that everyone in our society can and must accept. Do we need shared values? Attachment to institutions? Or a broader sense of history and heritage?

To see why this question has hit the agenda, take the family friend who arrived recently from Pakistan's North-West Frontier. A teenage girl, in Liverpool to study computing and business, she was scandalized by the locals: “No culture! No values! And” (lowering her voice) “we get abuse if we go out alone.” Talk of British identity is not just a response to religious extremism: there is also the guilty sense that our civic values are not what they once were. Hence, when the Home Secretary announced a “Britishness test” for immigrants, the wry cartoons of new arrivals answering questions on Burberry and binge-drinking.

How will redefining Britishness work in practice? You don't have to be a Marxist to think that a sense of identity can't just be developed by policy wonks, then handed out to the wider community. Before anything else, after all, national identity is about loyalty to a particular group: about whose side you are on. The English language, the common law, chicken tikka masaala, and other components of our national identity – warm beer and old maids on bicycles, as John Major put it, or liberty, fairness and civic pride if you prefer Gordon Brown's version – all ultimately rest on this foundation. At bottom a nation is just a group of people who are prepared to work together for their common good, what the philosopher John Rawls, in a slightly different context, called a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage”. So perhaps our first question should be, is there still a British nation at all?

Historically, British identity was like other nationalisms, bound up with war. National identity was needed because those that had it would defeat those who didn't. The high point of nationalism came after Napoleon's armies demonstrated the power of this principle Europe-wide. Modern warfare required mass citizen armies, which in turn required mass loyalty. In Britain, this loyalty bound classes together in an unequal partnership. Kipling, the poet of nationalism and empire, eulogized the working-class Tommy Atkins. For their part, the working classes in Britain and elsewhere notoriously sided with nation rather than class in 1914. (This was probably a wise choice: losing a war has worse consequences than losing some share of the surplus from economic development.) Historically, also, nations were communities of fate, in the sense that for almost all their inhabitants, migration to another country cost too much to consider except in dire emergency. It made sense to support the country you were born into, because there was no alternative.

However, the past was not an age of unambiguous national solidarity. The ruling classes could be passionately patriotic, but their attachment was to a particular idea of Britain, not necessarily to everyone within it. About a thousand Old Etonians were killed in the Great War – literally decimation, and an example of the disproportionate share of casualties taken by the officer classes – but at the same time the wealthy could teach their children, as George Orwell was taught, that “the lower classes smell”. David Cannadine’s history of imperial views, Ornamentalism, shows the mixed loyalties of British colonial administrators who might prefer native elites to their own countrymen: “in the Raj Quartet, Major Ronald Merrick, whose social background was relatively lowly, believed that ‘the English were superior to all other races, especially black’. But the Cambridge-educated Guy Perron feels a greater affinity with the Indian Hari Kumar, who went to the same public school as he did, than he does with Merrick… .” Kipling himself recognized that national solidarity waxed and waned as it seemed to be required: “... it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!' / But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot”. Britain was a partnership between classes, but an uneasy one.

The conditions for this partnership no longer exist. The threat of war in Europe has receded, as have the potential gains from military empire-building, and in any case mass citizen armies are redundant. Cheaper transport means that nations are more and more communities of choice, not fate. In particular, EU citizens have the right to live and work throughout the Union – a right which is particularly easy to exercise for the highly-skilled and rich. Peace and freedom are, needless to say, very good things, but they have removed the old bases for national identity. This is particularly true for political and social elites, who are increasingly integrated into global economic and social networks, and have correspondingly fewer connections with their own countries. (Here's a quick self-test to find out if you fit this description: how many times have you visited Paris? Now, how many times have you visited Liverpool?)

A liberal optimist would welcome the fact that the old nationalism is redundant. Britain can be a successful economy, attracting talent from around the world. In fact, if we pander to xenophobia by erecting barriers to trade or migration, we only harm ourselves by making our economies less efficient. Whose side should we be on? Nobody's and everybody's.

This perspective has undoubted appeal. It is uncompromisingly cosmopolitan and impartial: the welfare of a Chinese textile worker counts as much as that of a Scottish one, so why favour either over the other? And economic freedom, the creation of integrated world markets in goods and maybe one day in labour, genuinely does make the world richer.

The problem is that globalization, economic integration and freedom of movement affect different parts of countries differently and unequally. Divide the world into three parts: already rich, getting rich and getting poorer. London and Silicon Valley are examples of the rich parts – magnets of talent and ambition. People come there to succeed. They power the world's knowledge economy, and their inhabitants reap corresponding rewards. The rich areas nowadays source much of their talent from the “getting rich” areas: India provides about one third of Silicon Valley's engineers. Both sides benefit from the relationship. Workers from developing countries “send money home”, as Western Union's advert puts it, and often return themselves, bringing new skills.

But not everywhere is like this. Some areas are getting poorer – not absolutely, but relatively. They lack the skills and the infrastructure to compete with the rich areas, but have higher labour costs than the developing world. Consider East Germany. Capital from the West has streamed past it to Eastern Europe, while cheap workers have gone in the opposite direction. Since unification its population has shrunk by 2 million. Or think of Southern Italy, which is such a drain on national resources that the Northern League is calling for secession. (The cruel paradox is that political unity with the rich parts of the world, and the corresponding labour market regulation, is often what makes these areas so unappealing to globally mobile capital.)

If the people in these areas only cared about absolute wealth, the gains from globalisation would outweigh the no doubt temporary pains of adjustment to a fairer and more open world. Alas, humans aren't like that. Adam Smith suggested that it was better to be an English peasant than a king in Africa, who might be the absolute ruler of ten thousand people, but was worse clothed and housed. Stanford undergraduates have settled that question empirically: asked whether they would prefer being twice as rich as they were, if everyone around them were four times richer, or twice as poor but with everyone else four times poorer, they overwhelmingly plumped for the latter. This is not just about envy. As Mind The Gap, Richard Wilkinson's book on health and inequality, argues, relative poverty is fundamentally bad for your health, making you more stressed, more prone to heart attacks and likely to die younger.

The logic of globalization is that Coventry, say, will someday soon be poorer than Bombay, and less connected to London. (This inevitable development could not be changed by any improvement in our workforce's education, contrary to New Labour mythology. Large countries are more important markets than small ones, and their commercial centres draw on a greater pool of talent. Besides, why should developing countries be less able to improve their education systems than we are?) Whatever the absolute gains from free trade, this fall in relative status will be bitterly resented, and there will be enormous political pressure to interfere in the market. In effect, the poorer parts of Britain will ask the rich parts: whose side are you on?

Not everybody has yet understood the lost basis of traditional British identity. Perhaps it is least understood by those who have most to lose. The danger is that when they do, and when they see themselves falling increasingly behind the richer areas of the country, they will seek different repositories for their allegiance. These new groups will not represent Britain in the traditional sense – the old agreement between the classes – but they will call themselves British, and very likely define Britishness by ethnicity. Then our politics really will take on a grimly communal cast.

This has happened already elsewhere. The debate over British identity was fuelled by the visibility of militant Islam, but in the long run a more important context may be the emergence of the radical nationalist Right across Europe. We like to think that our relatively weak Far Right is due to the British tradition of tolerance and moderation. In fact it probably has more to do with the first-past-the-post electoral system, which prevents extremists from getting a foothold. That, however, does not apply in political arenas beyond Westminster – arenas which will become more important, if the cross-party consensus in favour of decentralization has practical results.

This worry explains New Labour's sudden interest in defining Britishness, and in particular the focus on what can bind Britons of different races together. The intention is creditable. But if it is going to be more than a public relations exercise, it will require progressive opinion in this country to make choices for which it is rather unprepared, but which follow inevitably from the view that national identity is at bottom about loyalty to people rather than ideas.

The first of these is that you cannot lecture people on national pride until you have some yourself. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that people with a college degree are about half as likely to say they are “very proud” of being British than people without a qualification. Fair enough: nationalism lost popularity with educated people because of changing economic conditions, but also because it was correctly believed to be the root of many 20th century evils. We are now rediscovering the positive side, though, and would like a new patriotism for the 21st century. Doing that calls less for creative, multicultural redefinitions – we have plenty of those already – than for a new commitment to Britain by those who have the most choice in the matter.

Secondly, this commitment must be reflected in policy. Both major parties have rejected economic protectionism in favour of free trade and openness. Retreating into protectionism and populism would indeed be a terrible mistake. The best way to avoid it is to give greater priority, in social policy, to protecting British communities whose status is endangered by globalization. This requires a hard choice between competing values. Take a simple example. A new publication by the Young Foundation, The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict, describes the resentment felt by white East End families when the old system for allocating public housing, based on residence and connection to the community, was replaced by one based on need alone. From a universalist perspective, this resentment simply expresses a formerly privileged group’s unjust sense of entitlement. Residents might, and do, reply that they were owed something as Britons, partners in an ongoing social contract which should not have been broken for the sake of charitable motives. Both views are reasonable, but only one is compatible with talking about national identity.

Which leads unavoidably to an issue most Left-wingers won’t like. Bluntly, if you define Britishness without ethnicity, then you need some other way of defining national membership, and that implies a tough line on immigration. The logic of talking about British identity is to tell people in economically deprived and dislocated areas, “we are on your side, we are part of one nation, you can rely on us to help you through the pains of globalization”. That promise means nothing if the group you point at as the focus of your loyalty can be expanded at will to suit the demands of the market. It’s not a racial issue: opinion polls in 2003 showed that majorities of blacks and Asians, like their white compatriots, saw immigration as out of control. This is unsurprising. Pakistanis in Bradford, just like whites in Essex, face the threat of globalization. There are surely prejudices involved, but the most important one is the – no doubt very unjust – prejudice of disadvantaged and economically insecure Britons in favour of themselves.

Specifically, nobody yet knows whether openness to migration, in an age of cheap travel, can be combined with a generous welfare state, including universal free education and healthcare. On the face of it, it seems extremely improbable. More likely is the USA’s pattern of high growth but very large inequalities. (The United States has combined this with a strong sense of patriotism, and a national identity based on immigrants' dreams of prosperity and success. Perhaps the American dream is simply a myth to justify an unfair society. Whatever truth it has comes from the fact that most US citizens are immigrants or their relatively recent descendants: they or their forefathers – with the obvious exception of African Americans – chose to live somewhere with a lot of freedom but not much security. That is clearly not the case for Britons.)

The Left, and the British political system in general, faces a choice of values: internationalism or nationalism? The power and appeal of internationalism, a proud Left tradition, was shown in widespread support for the Make Poverty History campaign against European trade barriers which harm the developing world's peasant farmers. There is nothing wrong with wanting to treat Chinese and Scottish textile workers the same. But you cannot do that and simultaneously call for a renewed sense of national identity.

The Plaistow pub will probably still stand empty for a long while. Who would ever want to go back there? We could build something more modern, a warm, welcoming place for people of all races. But to do this, we need to rebuild from the foundations, rather than merely changing the décor. In other words, we need not just a different way of expressing national identity, but a new nation which citizens of all races and classes are part of. Alternatively, we can embrace the global market, stay on an economically liberal path (with a few prudent concessions to the misguided majority), let the world benefit, and let outmoded loyalties die in peace.