Wednesday, 23 December 2009

back in blighty

I'm back for Christmas, which for once might be white! The trains are packed but England doesn't seem quite as chaotic and rude as I remember it... is that just wishful thinking? Perhaps it's because I travelled first class for the first time in my life.

By the way, here's one thing I love about Germany. Sitting in the cafe idly scanning the supplement of Die Zeit. There's an interesting article about someone doing research on chimps - origins of human morality etc. It seems well-written. I wonder who the journalist is? Ah. J├╝rgen Habermas.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


At first I thought Climategate was a storm in a teacup. I thought about it some more when Bill Easterly jumped in. (See also his interesting comparison with growth econometrics.) So I got reading. Two enjoyable blogs on climate science provided my jumping-in point: (which is, roughly speaking, pro-global-warming) and (which is roughly anti). I enjoyed finding out how you can inform yourself on this hottest of all topics, and the strengths and weaknesses of the different resources available (scientific papers, blogs and the mainstream media).

Thoughts so far.
  • I don't think the emails can be dismissed as scientists using robust language among themselves. For instance, some have said that the now-infamous phrase "trick to hide the decline" just means a technically clever piece of work. Climateaudit goes into the details, and on their analysis, the trick was not innocuous - it made the science look more settled than it was for the 3rd IPCC report. Similarly, it's wrong (and illegal?) to delete emails or files if you are afraid of a freedom of information request.
  • There seem to have been serious problems with the original "hockey stick" graph. Trying as best I could to read through the scientific papers on this, I thought that Mcintyre and McKittrick were fairly convincing.
  • The hockey stick controversy (which is the context for the most controversial UEA emails) doesn't seem to bear much on whether global warming is happening. We know it is because we have data from weather stations around the world for the past century. The debate is about whether there was a "medieval warm period" when the earth was hotter than today or if today's global warming is unique (since 1000AD). (See here and here for more details.)
  • Even if the medieval era was hotter than today, that wouldn't prove global warming doesn't matter. (The 13th century saw the Black Death, after all.)
  •  There seem to be plenty of other reasons to believe that global warming is real, and that CO2 contributes, and that this might cause severe problems for many parts of the world if we don't stop it. I haven't found anything that persuades me otherwise.
  • ... actually, I think Jon Stewart sums up better than I could.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Seeking an entry point into the literature

So, can any political scientist/economist out there give me an academic reference about Parliament's oversight role? I know about the literature on Congressional oversight of bureaucracy - patrols and fire alarms, etc. - is there something similar for oversight of the executive and the Cabinet? It would be nice to know about any modelling work, but classics would also be interesting.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Why is the EU seen as out of touch? Why oh why can that be?

"The [EU Human Rights] Charter is possibly the most wide-ranging human rights treaty in the world today. There are civil rights, political rights, social rights, ecological entitlements, rights for the arts, consumer rights."

Seriously. I'm trying to imagine what rights for the arts are.


OK, read it. Mostly it's a combination of the innocuous and the innocuous-but-meaningless - lots of phrases like "in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of this right." (I.e., the EU can't violate this right but national governments can carry on as they were before.)

The stuff on collective bargaining, however, is hilarious.

Article 28
Right of collective bargaining and action
Workers and employers, or their respective organisations, have, in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels and, in cases of conflicts of interest, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action.

Article 29
Right of access to placement services
Everyone has the right of access to a free placement service.
Yes! At last, the natural demand of every human for a Jobcentre has been recognized! I think this right was first mentioned by Cicero in his classic treatise "de Jure Naturale Doleblodgiandi".


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

lme false convergence

If you are using the R package lme4, and get error messages about "false convergence", then use the option verbose=TRUE in your call to lmer, and examine the output, which shows how the estimates of your betas change as the estimation proceeds. If you see any values for your betas are rather small, then divide that variable by 10 or 100 or 1000. This seems to help lmer to converge correctly.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Charter cities

Paul Romer has put up a website with his suggestion for freeing people from lousy rulers: create new "charter cities" they can move to.

I am rather sympathetic. A lot of Europeans in the C19 escaped to America from their lousy rulers. And as the FAQ states, within America, increased mobility was liberating - for example, in the Great Migration, Blacks moved from the South to Northern cities like Chicago.

Also, I have a related paper.

On the other hand, there are issues. One is the effect of competition on the lousy rulers themselves (and all the people who will still be living under them). This need not always make them better, as explained by the sophisticated graph on the left. A bit of competition might make rulers invest more and try harder to keep their people happy - after all, the population provide the ruler's tax base. But if there is so much competition that there's no way the ruler can match it, he may just opt for the short-term strategy and steal everything.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


Apparently, the UK has the lowest quality of life among 10* European countries, despite our higher income. Measures like this are important complements to the standard indicator of GDP. But as Nietzsche said, "Happiness is blessed, therefore it lies."

If a large part of our national income is invested in the future -- say, funding for social science research -- then some of our extra wealth compared to those happy-go-lucky Italians is being put into things that will benefit our children. The choice between GDP growth and quality-of-life is a choice between jam now and jam tomorrow. (In the eighteenth century, overworked English peasants probably had worse quality of life than the lucky inhabitants of Tahiti. Now the comparison is reversed, and we can go to Tahiti for our holidays.) Another way to put it: GDP levels are not very mean-reverting, so if we grow extra this year, we are likely to have that extra GDP for a long time.

That doesn't mean we are better off now. But it does mean that happiness indices and such should be taken with a pinch of salt... and we should be wary of replacing the Protestant work ethic with the ideals of those lotus-eating continentals.

* or is it 7? Great fact-checking, Grauniad.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Costly signalling

I've just had a coffee at the fabulous Quirinus. They brought it to me in a little white cup with a green jug of milk and a glass of water and a biscuit. They could have brought it in a plastic beaker, it would have tasted the same. But man, what a difference it makes to how it feels!
Conclusion: costly signalling is pervasive, and good crockery matters.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


(Apologies for the rhymes...)

Malaysia’s as black as a coalface;
So’s Iran; and our own democrats
Fly in victims to fill Bagram airbase.
I think my epsilons need hats.

I can’t turn the world with a letter
Or integrate beatings with bats,
Explain things till worser seems better:
But I can give my epsilons hats.

While I construct castles of sand art
From the stylized and hideous facts,
The world’s off to hell in a handcart.
Best give those epsilons some hats!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Work in progress

I've also just uploaded some early "work in progress" on political competition. This is much more mainstream political science, asking the question: how might increasing competition between states for footloose citizens affect democratic institutions within each state? We've got a very simple model and some initial empirics. Still, I'm pretty excited about the paper. Take a look here, but be warned, it's not very polished!

The anonymity paper

I thought I'd fulfil my promise to blog about the paper on anonymity, with David Reinstein, which we updated a few days back. It starts from a worry about the "costly signalling" theory of religion and ritual - the idea that people take part in collective activities, like rain dances and church fetes, so as to show their commitment to a particular group. Costly signalling theory comes out of game theory and has had a big impact in both social and biological sciences.

Fine... but if the penalties for not taking part are high, perhaps because the group excludes you, then there are big incentives to take part even if you aren't really committed. We propose that in some cases making the activity anonymous solves this problem. The example in the paper is "Secret Santa", which I saw for the first time at Essex. My fellow PhD students gathered together and drew names out of a hat, then each of us set off to spend £5 on a present for our name. Come Christmas, we all got our presents, but nobody knew who was the giver. The nice thing about Secret Santa is that when other people get you something thoughtful, it's truly anonymous: there's no selfish motive to show off. So you end up (hopefully) learning that your peers really are nice people.

This paper owes something to my undergraduate SPS degree, which included a year of anthropology. In fact, the original idea for the paper came from the Kula Ring institution, though we've dropped that example. But we include other examples from small-scale societies (which are especially likely to need collective solidarity): in particular, song and dance. The main interest of the paper, for me, is the insight it may offer into these very ancient forms of culture, and how they support human cooperation.

At a less exotic level, we think that the model offers some insight into why anonymous donations might be the norm in certain collective projects. When my mother's village raised money to turn the field in front of the church into a village green, they put up a sign with the amount raised so far, but they did not announce individual donations. That's not the sort of thing you do in Kingsland.

I and David Reinstein decided to test this in the lab: we ran some two-stage public goods games, in which small groups are asked to donate money to a common cause which benefits all group members. In one treatment, the first stage was anonymous so players didn't know who gave what. In the other, "revealed" treatment, amounts given were linked to player numbers. Both treatments allowed for certain players to be excluded by the others' choice.

Not surprisingly, in the revealed treatment, the lowest givers often got excluded, and as a result, stage one donations went up. But more surprisingly, stage two donations went down. Our theory explains it like this: in the anonymous treatment, players could observe stage one donations and figure out whether their fellow group members were likely to make big donations in stage two; if so, then they too would do that. (People are prepared to play nice so long as others play nice also - in the jargon, they are conditional cooperators.) In the revealed treatment, on the other hand, everybody was giving a lot in stage one just to avoid being excluded. But then nobody knew what to expect in stage two, and not wanting to be the sucker in a group full of meanies, they gave less.

Here's my favourite plot from the paper, showing stage one and stage two donations in each treatment. (Bubble size shows how many people made each combination of donations.) The anonymous treatment is on the left: you can see that guys who donated a lot in stage one did the same in stage two. On the right this is much less true: in fact many people gave 2 or even the maximum 4 in stage one, then nothing in stage two.

(The paper is on my website. My Secret Santa present was a rubber stamp, for marking students' essays, with the words "COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT". It was just what I needed. Thanks, guys.)

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

New working paper

I and David Reinstein have got a working paper out for our project on anonymity and cooperation. See here or download the paper directly here. I'll post more about it soon.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Am I missing something?

So what's the actual evidence that the Iranian elections were fraudulent?

The National Post reports a poll that put Ahmadinejad ahead by 2 to 1. There's a statistical analysis here which basically gives no answer. (It looks for evidence of made-up poll numbers and finds none; it finds deviations in favour of Ahmanidejad compared to a model based on 2005 election results, and on growth in turnout, in certain areas. That could be for a hundred reasons (think about trying to estimate a model of the recent Euro elections, based on turnout and 2005 results).

I can't stand Ahmadinejad and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the election was rigged, but where is the evidence?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Pop quiz

Which brilliant young evolutionary economist said the following recently?

XXXXX: 13.30-15.00
Motion: Let it be resolved that this conference believes that the notion of prediction has high value as a criterion for research in social sciences.
[00:12:01] … i'll tell you who will win...
[00:12:29] David Hugh-Jones: go on
[00:12:53] XXXXX: ?
[00:13:01] David Hugh-Jones: who will win?
[00:13:13] XXXXX: well, that is the motion
[00:13:27] … the conference vote about it at the beginning
[00:13:44] … i'll vote against, of course

Saturday, 13 June 2009


I put up the presentation that I gave at the M-BEES conference on my website. The first slides are a bit cryptic. In order:

  1. Title slide.
  2. Families watch striking miners return to work. Strikes are a good example of the need to cooperate outside of a contractual framework.
  3. Worshippers at a church in Virginia. Religion and rituals have been explained as costly signals of commitment to a particular group.
  4. Simeon Stylites, who spent 37 years on top of a pillar. Costly signalling can be very costly.
  5. Still from There Will Be Blood. But if it's not costly enough, it fails to deter selfish people from entering the community. (You'll know what I mean if you've seen the film.)
  6. Examples of anonymous rituals: marching and uniforms.
  7. Examples of anonymous rituals: music. Gertrude Bell has a fabulous quote on this which is in the powerpoint notes.
  8. More examples: church donations, Secret Santa, anonymous voting.
  9. ... and applause. (Spot the Stalin connection.)
After that it gets more ordinary.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The guardian's data blog is quite fun

I did this as a break from the actual real empirics I'm doing. Needless to say, you'd be crazy to take this seriously. I was hoping to see the opposite: Mum's a strong UKIP supporter and I figured they would be substitutes. Maybe in the individual voting calculus they are (the data points are constituencies).

Monday, 25 May 2009

Life imitates Facebook

I've been given a piece of yeast in order to make a cake. After I bake it I have to hand on the yeast to 3 other people. The process takes five days, and you're not allowed to do it more than once. So if 4^16 = 4 billion roughly, in about 3 months everybody in the world will have had this yeast.

It says it's from the Vatican and will bring me luck and fulfilment. I suppose I will be filled full of cake so that is a kind of fulfilment. Anyway I am obeying its instructions, only wooden spoons, no fridge.

My conclusions are thus:

1. Surely it's highly hypocritical that Church leaders criticize the greed of hard-working business executives. And yet here they are endorsing a cake-based Ponzi scheme. It seems there's one law for us and another for the Reverends.

2. If you are Al-Qaeda, don't bother flying planes into buildings. Just stick some slowacting Anthrax into a bag of yeast and send it on with a message saying "send this cake to 5 dear loved ones for happiness". Civilization destroyed in a jiffy.


I went to the hairdresser today. She gave me a pitying look and said "shall we leave it long around the top?" That's the second time that's happened.

I guess there's some conspiracy among hairdressers to keep balding men's hair long. To keep us kidding ourselves, so we don't go and shave it all off with a Number One.

I'm not going to go back there again. Those people are so tactless.

Saturday, 25 April 2009


Very interesting Daily Telegraph article about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I think a lot of us have virtuously given up plastic shopping bags, but simultaneously started to drink mineral water in plastic bottles, which end up in the ocean. I will try to cut down on that.

Hmm, songs about plastic:
Plastic Fantastic Lover - Jefferson Airplane
Plasticman - Kinks
How I Wrote Plastic Man - The Fall. Actually it's called How I Wrote Elastic Man but he sings "plastic man".

Friday, 13 March 2009

New paper up on my website

... at (or download directly). This is an early draft which I'll present at MPSA. It tackles the question of why people go to war. Essentially it provides microfoundations for thinking that the decision to fight is like a Stag Hunt, rather than a Prisoner's Dilemma. (Stag Hunts are relatively benign collective action problems, in which everyone is willing to cooperate so long as everybody else does.) Most people's intuition is that war is a PD. I try to show this is not always the case. Along the way, I provide a very simple model of the social construction of ethnic identity, handwave vaguely at endogenizing ethnic boundaries, and say mean things about Social Dominance Theory.