Friday, 28 December 2012


Computer nerds analyse the UK economy.
Goethe was an early user of the Becker-De Groot-Marshak method for eliciting true valuations. (Hat tip: Alexia Gaudeul. For non-specialists, the BDM method works as follows. You state your bid to receive some object, e.g. a bar of chocolate. The computer then randomly determines a price. If the price is lower than your bid, you pay the price and get the chocolate; otherwise you pay nothing and don't get the chocolate. In these circumstances, the best strategy is to state your true value for the chocolate.)

Monday, 24 December 2012

Books I read this year.

Robert Parker - On Greek Religion
The best sort of humanities: well-written, deeply immersed in its subject, drawing on ideas from anthropology and comparative religion.

John Keegan – The Face Of Battle
From the 1970s, a reconstruction of the experience of three famous battles – Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. This is a great book, full of insights into how and why men fight rather than run, and even using the lived experience to explain the course of the battle.

Chetan Bhagat – Revolution 2020
This guy is super popular in India. He writes in simple English that you can understand if it’s not your first language. I learnt more from this about the workings of contemporary India than I would have from many weightier tomes, and it was also a sweet love story with a very human (anti)hero.

Dan Ariely – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty
Very good, discussed here.

Christopher Clark – Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downall of Prussia, 1600-1947
Started but haven’t yet finished. I’ve been reading a lot of European history just to reach the level of education I should have got by eighteen – the basics of who did what. This book is rather standard modern history: written neither really well nor really badly, very comprehensive but a bit too long, with the prejudices and ideas of the early 21st century.

Robert H. Davies - The Golden Century of Spain
Now this, published in 1937, is really good history from 75 years ago. It’s beautifully written, has a strong narrative pulse, covers the economy though it probably lacks the techniques of a serious modern economic historian.... Above all, good narrative helps the facts stick in my mind, which I need. I don’t really care about the historian’s interpretation as there is no possible way I can judge! But it is interesting to read Davies because he is strongly pro-Catholic and for example considers William the Silent as a dangerous and dishonest political chancer – about as far as you could be from Motley’s interpretation. (Which is another stunningly good piece of narrative history.)

Cecil Jenkins – A Brief History of France
Ridiculously simplistic. Don’t bother. Where is the good history of France in English?

Charles Ingrao – The Habsburg Monarchym 1618-1815
Workaday and uninspiring history. Gave up halfway and have not yet returned.

Ortega – Revolt of The Masses
The liberal-elitist classic which I mentioned briefly here.

Yang Jisheng – Tombstone
I’ve just started this history of Mao’s famine. It has a beautiful and moving opening paragraph. The history is as grim as you would expect; what is interesting is how those in power managed their own guilt.

Jonathan Spence – In Search of Modern China
Fabulous book covering China from about the 1600s until the 1970s. Very well written by the West’s greatest historian of China. It gave me two really cool quotes; one about honesty and one about multiple equilibria. The British, said Feng Guifen in the 19th century, had a great advantage: “the necessary accord of word and deed”. And on multiple equilibria, by Lu Xun at the start of the twentieth: “hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”

Cao Xueqin  Dream of the Red Chamber
Started but gave up when my Kindle broke. A very, very long novel and China’s most famous, but lots of it seemed pretty dull. One thing is cool – the novel is narrated by a stone, which sometimes uses a strange authorial voice, in a postmodern/Lawrence Sterne vein. There are some hot sex scenes.

John Iliffe – Africans: The History of a Continent
Bits of this reminded me of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s jibe about the gyrations of savage tribes (can’t source, sorry) – lots of kingdoms were mentioned which have left no mark on history because they were illiterate. Bits were really interesting, though, including the history of West Africa, the way in which Africans, like pioneers in the US West, fought to conquer the wilderness.

E. H. Carr – The Romantic Exiles
A classic. One of those books that explains the age it covers not by the sweep of grand events but by the revealing details of little ones – like that European revolutionaries had their own “revolutionary tribunals” to provide justice without an appeal to existing states. Or that George Sand was a hugely popular prophet of sexual liberation.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala – The Origins of Sex
A book of cultural history about sex, which would normally make me suspicious, because I greatly doubt that the realities of human biology are all culturally constructed. But actually really good – it makes a strong case that the eighteenth century saw the first sexual revolution. This may be a bit too strong; but, for example, who'da thought that Bentham wrote a great deal of unpublished work in defence of homosexual equality?

G Grant – The World We Created at Hamilton High
Super book from the 1980s, about a high school before, during and after racial integration. But really you could say it’s a microcosm of all of society moving from the segregated but highly acculturated 1950s, through the chaos of the 1970s, to a rebirth of a fairer but harsher order.

Akerlof and Kranton – Identity Economics
Hmm, a bit meh. Not so much original content here – it’s really the Everyman version of Akerlof and Kranton’s papers about identity – although lots of ideas from interesting places. Best for me because it mentioned Hamilton High. My 2c: human groups are hugely important, but social identity is actually just a secondary part of group psychology.

Barbara Tuchman - The Proud Tower
A classic about the world before World War I. Just brilliantly good prose. Each chapter is on a theme and each theme illustrates a different aspect of an overwrought society as it approached a century-sized calamity.

John Felstiner – Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew
The only biography in English of my favourite poet. Not great in general, rather full of earnest lit-crit-isms, and much more focused on the poetry than on the human being – perhaps because little is known – but with occasional sharp insights and useful background, and obviously written out of a deep connection with the work.

Acemoglu and Robinson – Why Nations Fail
Reviewed much too prolixly, starting here.

James Hansen – Storms of My Grandchildren
Pretty extremely frightening, by a serious climate scientist. He is not entirely mainstream, but so distinguished that he seems worth listening to. Not mainstream because he believes empirics more than models. (Social scientists are currently in an era where they do the same, but remember that the models are supposedly based on physics, which is perhaps a better founded science than anything we have got.)

Ed Glaeser – Triumph of the City
Great, discussed here.

Taine – Notes on England
A counterpart to Democracy in America, another Frenchman taking an outsider’s view on a successor to French greatness. Light of touch and full of the atmosphere of nineteenth-century England. I like reading contemporary accounts, it cuts through layers of interpretation. Taine is a very good writer.

Turgenev – A Sportsman’s Sketches
Brilliant short stories. The only question is whether he is better than Chekhov. His stories are more diffuse but perhaps shine with a steadier light.

Kipling – Plain Tales from the Hills
This is the young Kipling and his stories already show more human insight than I will ever have. I think the Edwardians were right: Kipling is a great writer. Yes, he’s an imperialist, but he who was interested in people of all kinds and colours, and gave respect where he saw it earned (disrespect also).

Le Bon – The Crowd
Another surprise. Not actually about crowds at all but about mass psychology and the society we now fully inhabit. Incredibly witty and rude. Great to read if you are sick of democratic pieties. If not, at least it will be beneficially inflammatory.

Golding – Lord of the Flies
Never read it as a schoolboy. Mmmyeah. Not really top rate. Interesting and psychedelic. Also imperialist in a very late way. What is savagery? It’s not behaving like Englishmen.

Thomas Nagel – Mind and Cosmos
Hmm. Tyler Cowen loved it. It is very food-for-thoughty. What has stuck with me is the question of what justifies our faith in our experience as a guide to reality. I thought Hegel had an answer to this one, that “reality” was just the name for the principles that structure our experience, but I know nothing about philosophy.

Bardsley et al. – Experimental Economics: Rethinking the Rules
This is almost what I’ve wanted to say all along. Do they realise – or do other people realise – how seriously they are criticizing very large bodies of existing work in experimental economics? For example, I am now not sure how to interpret the huge literature on public goods games, because it may just be based on a faulty paradigm. The only thing I am not sure about is their interpretation of “model” in economics. For them a model is like an architect’s scale model. I always thought of models as arguments, dressed up in mathematical language. Anyway, all experimentalists should read this book.

Rilke – Duineser Elegien
Great and sorrowful and deep. I have no idea what most of these mean, but I don’t mind trying to find out for the rest of my life. Also lovely for me because of the echoes (well, pre-echoes) of Celan.

Arnold - Culture and Anarchy
I ought to love this but I really feel it has not stood the test of time. Culture seems a sloppily defined substitute for religion, and I am not surprised that an Arnoldian clerisy has failed to exercise cultural leadership in Britain over past century, instead disappearing up its own state-subsidized behind.

McCluskey – The Bourgeois Virtues
McCluskey is great when she’s punchy but I couldn’t even manage one volume of this, let alone the four that are planned. Too much prose per idea.

Kevin Clarke and David Primo  A Model Discipline
Interesting. Reviewed here.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Ethics committees

Every piece of university research involving humans has to go through an ethical approval process, typically handled by a committee.
History shows plenty of examples of horrendous research on humans. So surely ethics committees must be good things? Mmm... I am not convinced.
Ethics committees check every piece of research for problems before it starts. This is not the only approach to prevention. Some transactions on your local high street may be deceptive, but trading standards bodies do not check every transaction before allowing it. Closer to home, there is a danger of fraudulent research, but we do not check every piece of research for fraudulence. Instead we deal with problems by after-the-event sanctions and trust them to have incentive effects.
Scholars studying political oversight of bureaucracies talk about “police patrols” versus “fire alarms”. Police patrols check things ex ante; fire alarms go off only when there is a problem – for example, when a constituent or lobbyist raises a complaint. Police patrols have their advantages, but they can be massively expensive and cumbersome. Ethics committees are police patrols.
As well as imposing transaction costs, there is a danger that ethics committees go beyond their remit and try to control what research gets done. Ought their terms of reference not stop this? Perhaps in theory. In practice, often the ethical risks of a particular experiment must be weighed against the benefit of the research. But this is a backdoor, which allows committees to consider what is good and bad research.
The (nice and helpful) people on my last panel assured me that many researchers found that discussions with them improved their research design. Undoubtedly that was indeed true, but it is just the problem. If you are having that kind of discussion with a body which can allow or ban your research, then you have lost the ability to judge for yourself what research is worth doing. The benefits accruing to perhaps to 99% of researchers will be outweighed by the loss from the 1% with an innovative idea that, like many such ideas, meets resistance from the status quo.
In Germany, there are essentially no ethical review requirements, at least for social science research. I strongly suspect that a sample of German research and UK or US research would find no statistically significant difference in the level of ethics violations. Ironically, I can find  no evidence base for the positive effect of ethical review on the ethical quality of social science (though there seems to be plenty on its effects on speed of research etc.)
As I have brought up the German case, you may now wish to mention Nazi medical “research” and Josef Mengele, perhaps the wickedest pseudo-scientist in history. Be careful with that argument. Do you really think that the problem with Mengele was insufficient oversight by an ethics committee? The Nazis would have controlled the committee too, because they had taken over German universities. One reason they were able to do so, I suspect, was that German academia were highly centralized and authoritarian. So, if you want to protect academia against the effects of tyranny, make sure it is decentralized and free. Ethical review processes may risk doing the reverse.
(PS: the new Essex Social Science Experimental Laboratory will scrupulously follow the University’s ethical guidelines, and all research conducted in it will have passed ethical review, as well as the Lab’s own strict rules banning deception. These are just my personal opinions.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Triumph of the City

.... one of my favourite books this year. Packed with good history and deep insight.

Ed Glaeser thinks that innovation comes when smart people bump into each other, for which the city is the perfect venue. Of course that must be true, but perhaps there is another side. If you are too connected, you may end up having the same ideas that everyone else has. The folk wisdom of academia says that great ideas come either out of the great centres like Harvard or Cambridge; or from little departments in the middle of nowhere, which are free to explore their own avenues. And the truly deep ideas of history have come from outside the city. Moses went up a mountain; Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness; Mohammed meditated in a cave.

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Recent human evolution. Here's the Nature paper.
The World Bank talks about improving delivery of public services in poor countries. Along the way, it dismisses the principal-agent theory of governance as "unrealistic". Interesting!


Kind of sad that in reading about the Leveson report, I don't feel able to trust any of the newspapers. This is not just a truism: for example, in general, I would trust the BBC to report attacks on itself somewhat openly and impartially. Maybe the Guardian will have decent coverage? Anyway, here is the executive summary so you can get it direct. I liked this Thomas Jefferson quote in a footnote: "I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it."