Economics is painfully incomplete— discuss

March 7, 2013

“(Neo)classical economics is so appealing because it accurately describes the short term mechanics of how humans exchange goods and services, is remarkably self-consistent, and its language and logic are so versatile in application.”

But— for the invisible hand to work well [1], it has to operate within a particular set of parameters (see conditions for ideal market [2]) that in practice are rarely achieved, and sometimes so far off being achievable that a better understanding of reality may be achieved by setting aside the (neo)classical perspective entirely. The global financial system and health care are examples that immediately come to mind.

I suspect and hope there is a big socioeconomic/human collective behavioural meta-theory out there which will eventually supersede current economic theory, that incorporates its insights while providing a much deeper account of long-term human phenomena.

If you uncover it, I will buy you a pint.

[1] The meaning of “work well” is of course open to discussion. Economists would describe it as something like “the efficient allocation of goods and services according to the agents’ preferences (utility).” Sadly they don’t seem to have much useful to offer in answer to the ensuing cascade of obvious follow-on questions; the logic starts to look very circular.
[2] Conditions for a perfect market
[3] See this thread on stoat for the indirect inspiration for this post

Lighting up the Dark Ages

January 24, 2013

First there’s this BBC piece, which is basically a summary of a series of papers published over the last few months describing unusual isotopes in tree rings and ice cores from the 8th century, attributable to some kind of external high energy radiation ‘event’. Perhaps a supernova, a solar superflare, or— as per the most recent paper, which is the focus of the BBC piece— a gamma ray burst.

Too intriguing to just leave there. What’s pleasantly surprising is that it’s relatively easy to follow the the back-and-forth in the academic literature— even with the frustrating Nature paywalls, and without understanding much of the detailed science.

Read the rest of this entry »

Schumann Resonance

January 14, 2013

Also known, more poetically, as the Earth “breathing” or its “heartbeat”:


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The Death of Theory: Kaggle, randomised control trials, and optimisation without understanding

January 7, 2013

Another effort to draw together some semi-coherent thoughts prompted by a couple of recent-ish items in the media.

Item 1:

“Down with experts”, a New Scientist opinion/interview piece from last month. It looks like Slate has the same interview subscription-free. Read the rest of this entry »

The Resilience of Diaspar: Thoughts on “The City and the Stars” by Arthur C Clarke

December 20, 2012

Over the last year or so I’ve started reading more science fiction again, as I’ve discovered old genre classics in handy ebook format at reasonable prices.

I thought I’d read most of Arthur C Clarke’s novels as a teenager, but “The City and the Stars”— an early effort, from 1956— slipped the net. Spoilers follow.

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New blog name

December 18, 2012

I was never completely happy with “Geodoctor”, but it reflected two big topics that were preoccupying me three years ago: health and geosciences. I believed that without some narrowing of the remit, I would find it impossible to sit down and write anything focused. Perhaps restricting the areas of interest would make the whole blogging endeavour seem more manageable, and bringing together two seemingly disparate subjects seemed like a good project.

I think it worked, to a point. I’ve kept it going intermittently and more or less on-topic, although stunning insights and big audiences have both been lacking. At least it’s allowed me to continue writing when other outlets have dried up. In blogging terms I’ve dipped my toes in the water, and even paddled a little in the shallow end.

But things have changed over the last three years. Health and geosciences remain important concerns— expect further posts on these topics, if only because one area remains central to my working life, and the other still figures as a major interest— but with a more accommodating title I should feel free to put fingers to keyboard on a broader range of topics. The new title gives me permission to wander around a little more, and I hope this will lead to more frequent posts. With only a very limited amount of writing time, I can’t afford to limit myself to particular subject areas.

Having said that, part of me hopes that some unifying thread will emerge over time. If it does, it wouldn’t surprise me if the human health/ geosciences intersection is part of it.

Let’s see how it goes.

Is Our Weather Getting Worse…?

December 11, 2012

…Is the title of the Channel 4 documentary I’ve just finished watching.

I should be pleased in that it basically makes the same points I made in my last post. The recent weather we’ve been getting is exactly what we’d expect in a warming world: more heat leads to more moisture in the atmosphere, more heatwaves, more rain, more floods, and more unstable weather generally.

Only it’s a Channel 4 documentary, like The Great Global Warming Swindle, so I was predisposed to hostile suspicion from the start.
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The 2012 UK floods and climate change

November 27, 2012

Well, it’s been raining a lot in the UK recently. Even more than usual.

Lots of footage of overflowing rivers, flooded homes, people being rescued from their abandoned cars. Lots of interviews with flooded home owners, officials from the Environment Agency, and excited weather forecasters.

But one surprising omission in the coverage I’ve seen:
No mention of global warming.

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The best GP surgery website ever

November 13, 2012

For future reference:

In case recent exposure on the forum leads to Powers-That-Be taking it down here’s an older, though apparently identical, version:
Archived version

London’s volcanic winter, and finding causal truth

August 27, 2012

…unendurable cold, that … bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle. 

Owing to the scarcity of wheat, a very large number of poor people died; and dead bodies were found in all directions, swollen and livid, lying by fives and sixe’s in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets…

These quotes come from a thirteenth century Benedictine diarist, Matthew Paris, recounting conditions in southern England in 1258. Read the rest of this entry »