How risky is climate change?

Milan’s watch and iBook

On his blog, Lee Jones posted a link to this book review. Basically, the argument is that people are (a) exaggerating the dangers of climate change and (b) using climate change as an excuse to pursue other ends. I would not deny either claim. The Intuitor review of The Day After Tomorrow is evidence of the first, and more can be found in many places. Of course, their review of An Inconvenient Truth suggests that not everyone is guilty of misrepresentation. As for smuggling your own agenda into discussions about climate change, I suspect that is equally inevitable. The question of how to behave justly in response to climate change is fundamentally connected to the history of economic development.

In an unprecedented move, I feel compelled to quote my own thesis:

While the IPCC has generated some highly educated guesses, the ultimate scale of the climate change problem remains unknown. On account of the singular nature of the earth, it is also somewhat unknowable. Even with improvements to science, the full character of alternative historical progressions remains outside the possible boundaries of knowledge. As such, in a century or so humanity will find itself in one of the following situations:

  1. Knowing that climate change was a severe problem, about which we have done too little
  2. Believing that climate change was a potentially severe problem, about which we seem to have done enough
  3. Believing that climate change was a fairly modest problem, to which we probably responded overly aggressively
  4. Observing that, having done very little about climate change, we have nonetheless suffered no serious consequences.

Without assigning probabilities to these outcomes, we can nonetheless rank them by desirability. A plausible sequence would be 4 (gamble and win), 2 (caution rewarded), and then 1 and 3 (each a variety of gamble and lose). Naturally, given the probable variation in experiences with climate change in different states, differing conclusions may well be reached by different groups.

As such, what it means to make informed choices about climate change has as much to do with our patterns of risk assessment as it does with the quality of our science. Exactly how it will all be hashed out is one of the great contemporary problems of global politics.

No crime to gobble

In the United States, there is a Presidential tradition of pardoning turkeys. Of course, it is dubious whether the turkeys had committed any capital offenses requiring a pardon beforehand. At least the tiger executed recently in British Columbia had done something that may have been criminal if done by a human. Birds of the genus Meleagris seem guilty of nothing more than being rather unusual looking.

The White House has an official photo gallery of presidents performing the ceremony. I like the shot of Truman. George Bush Senior seems oddly distanced from the proceedings. There is something a bit sick about “representatives of the turkey industry” presenting one bird to be spared in this way, while raising millions more in utterly degraded conditions and slaughtering them. It gives one a bit of insight into why Grant Hadwin wanted to cut down the one tree in B.C. being protected by the logging industry, while they were clear-cutting the rest of the province.

Donut holes in history

Today’s meeting with Andrew Hurrell was productive and enjoyable. Aside from preparing for exams, we had an interesting realization. It relates to the donut hole that exists in historical education. You see, there are the periods of history that are so distant that they even get mentioned in high school textbooks. (I remember how my grade eight science text spoke about how “soon man will set foot upon the moon.) Since everyone has been exposed to this time and time again, it forms a common basis for conversation. What gets complicated is when there are two separated tranches of people conversing, such as the members of my M.Phil program and members of the faculty.

This is because there is a whole realm of history that a person mostly knows about as a contemporary experience. Given that most people in my program are about 25, it is plausible to say that this period begins for us with the end of the Cold War. Most of the instructors are probably about twenty years older, so their contemporary awareness begins in about 1970. As a product of this, there is a kind of donut hole in our discussions. The period between those two thresholds of awareness is not extensively covered in many introductory level texts and, where it is, is it covered without much historical distance and corresponding scope for analysis. Think about contemporary textbooks discussing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – they can hardly put them into a historical framework that is likely to stand up well over the coming decades.

This may have something to do with why I can’t recall hearing anything about the New International Economic Order before coming to Oxford, as well as why I know more about the Harding and Coolidge administrations than about the Ford or Carter ones. It will be interesting to see what happens when history from 1970 to present has gone further through the process of becoming parable.

Investment advice

One other lesson gleaned from many conversations with economists, professors of finance, and bankers over the last two years: the degree to which managed investments like mutual funds outperform the market is generally less than the fees they charge. As such, those of you with more savings than debt should put them into a low-fee index tracking fund like those offered by Vanguard. If Donald Trump had put his inheritance into one and then waited, he would be richer than he is today.

Philip Greenspun agrees.

Climate change and responsible global citizenship

Old Library, Wadham College, Oxford

During my second-to-last high table dinner in Wadham tonight, I got into a long conversation about Canada and climate change. The man with whom I was speaking asserted that (a) Canada would benefit directly from moderate warming and (b) Canada would benefit from activities that encourage global warming, such as the exploitation of the tar sands. Neither of these claims is unassailable on a factual basis, but the normative implications are more interesting to consider at the moment.

Let’s say that both claims are true. Should Canada act to combat climate change? To me, it seems the answer is an unambiguous yes. If I live uphill from a farm and have the opportunity to benefit from cutting down all the trees on my land, the fact that erosion will harm my downhill neighbour is not external from the consideration of what ought to be done. Depending on your conception of ethics, it may or may not be ethically appropriate for my neighbour to pay me not to cut down the trees. Regardless, the ethically optimal solution is generally to avoid impoverishing one’s neighbours to enrich oneself. This is especially true when you are much richer than those likely to be most immediately and significantly harmed. Being a mugger may be a personally advantageous course of action, but we have obligations to others that preclude it from being an acceptable choice for a member of society. Among a society of nations, there is likewise an obligation to behave with consideration for others, even if it diminishes one’s own prospects. Of course, such noble sentiments are hard to embed in policy.

Now at eye level

Google Maps has added street level views. Check out Times Square or the Golden Gate Bridge. People in major American cities may now switch from looking at their roofs from space to looking at an archived image of their front door from across the street.

For a general collection of interesting things that have been spotted using Google Earth and Google Maps, see Google Sightseeing.

Brain tricks

Lord Codrington

I have resumed my old tactic of reading through rotation: moving from venue to venue in central Oxford. It is all meant to keep a bit of traction on the page. There is the sort of reading where a solid grip is there between your eyes, mind, and the page. Then, there is the sort that can quickly replace it, where your eyes just sweep along the page by inertia. While it is obviously hopeless to try to remember every note, event, comment, thinker, and idea, that sort of drift makes one no readier for exams. Changing surroundings (light, temperature, background noise, smell, and the rest) makes it easier to maintain a steady and progressive march.

The one thing most ably demonstrated by all yesterday’s experimentation is how easy it is to come up with cognitive tasks that are very hard for human beings. Things as simple as interpreting the length of line segments or estimating probabilities are awfully tricky, despite their mathematical simplicity. Thankfully, the complexities of human thinking do allow us to tweak things a bit and hack our own minds, in a certain sense. Hopefully, I will be able to come up with enough of them to deal with upcoming exams.

PS. This Twain adaptation is sombre but thought provoking. Written about the Philippine-American War, it is not lacking in contemporary relevance.

Document metadata

It remains somewhat amazing to me that governments and major international institutions so frequently forget what it means to distribute documents in Word format. In particular, people are surprisingly ignorant of how Word tracks changes: making documents into a palimpsest of revisions, not all of which you want the outside world to see. You don’t want the comment about how pointless one of the ‘key items’ in your ‘corporate vision’ is making it into the file that gets passed to the New York Times. Even the early copy of the Summary for Policymakers of the 4th Assessment Report of the IPCC that I have includes a few notes about edits that still need to be done.

Hopefully, closed standards like Word documents will fall by the wayside during the next decade or so. It is insane to be distributing so much information in a proprietary format for no good reason (just one more manifestation of monopolistic dominance). Hopefully, whichever open document format eventually comes to be standard will have better means for assessing and controlling what information you are inadvertantly embedding in your press releases, reports, spreadsheets, etc. Until then, lax security is likely to keep offering some interesting glances into the drafting processes of such publicized documents.

PS. One other thing to remember is that the standard jpg images produced by Adobe Photoshop include thumbnail files that are not edited when you change the image. As such, a face blurred out of the large version may still be recognizable in the embedded thumbnail version. The same goes for areas that may have been cropped from the image entirely. I am sure Cat Schwartz isn’t the only person who has suffered public embarassment because of this. No doubt, many other pieces of software include such counter intuitive and potentially problematic behaviours.

Scientific progress goes boink

Grass and brick wall

When I was in the process of applying to Oxford, I filled out a web questionnaire about stress. A few months ago, I was invited to participate in a study and given a two-hour screening. Today, the active part of the experiment began. I know it involves mood and stress, but I don’t have a terribly good idea of what they are looking for.

Today’s poking and prodding

They tested my ability to remember long lists of different kinds of things, particularly after being distracted in various ways. They tested my spatial reasoning in a number of paper and computer based exercises. One annoying one was trying to pick out four different three-digit sequences from a rapid string of numbers, pressing a button when I saw one of them. Because you mind tends to break up the string into a distinct series of three digit numbers, this is extremely hard. 233453456 becomes 233 453 456 starting at wherever you started thinking about it. As such, it is hard to see that 334, for instance, is part of the sequence.

One unusual bit involved playing a betting game on a computer. It showed two bars per screen, yellow in situations where I could win points and blue in those where I could lose them. Some bars were solid and had a single number on them. If you picked them, you were certain to win or lose that amount. Most were split into two fractions, where one was 1/3 of the bar or smaller. Usually, the choice being made was between the certainty of winning or losing a small amount for sure and the possibility of winning or losing more. For example, you might have to choose between a 2/3 chance of losing a small amount and a 1/3 chance of losing a larger amount or a 9/10 chance of losing nothing and a 1/10 chance to losing an even larger amount.

The curious thing is that, as far as my limited arithmetical abilities under such circumstances could be trusted, the bars were always very close to being or exactly statistically equivalent. For instance, you had the option of a guaranteed 66 points or a 1/3 chance at 200 points. As such, as the game went on, I found myself always choosing the ‘safe’ option. This was because I didn’t know the number of trials. You would expect the numbers to be the same for either strategy over the long term. After one million trials, it wouldn’t matter if you had chosen ’33 for sure’ or ‘1/3 of 100’ in every trial, or used any combination of them. If there were a small number of trials, however, choosing the option with more stable returns is less likely to generate an outlying number of points (high or low).

As the game went on, I thought I was doing no better than breaking even. At the end, it said I had over 10,000 points. Of course, it may just have been saying that. You can never be sure what is actually being tested in such experiments. The last, little thing that tends to happen at the end frequently seems to be the most important bit of the whole sequence. Regardless of whether the figure was meant to toy with my emotions or not, I am pretty sure I will get about another £10 at the end of the experiment for it.

In addition to all that, I was asked to tell little stories in response to words, provide definitions to others, and fill out lots of questionnaires about mood and my (non-existent) gambling habits. When called upon to define the words, I felt a bit like Blackadder when he was trying to re-write Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in one night.

The week ahead

For the next week, I need to wear an accelerometer and light meter, as well as keep a diary of eating, sleeping, and exercise. I am meant to wear the measuring equipment as much as possible, though I am not allowed to get it wet or bare-fist box while it is on my wrist. At the end of the week, they are giving me a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, a diffusion tensor imaging scan, and testing my cortisone levels.

There are 40 other participants, so the total amount of data generated seems very considerable. I hope they find some interesting stuff in there.

PS. Back in March 2006, I hoped the money from this experiment would help me buy a bike. Funny how slowly some things can proceed…

PPS. One of the pictures associated with the Wikipedia article on DTI scans was used in an Economist article this week about synesthesia.