Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Indiana, USA[1] has just passed a law that discriminates against ordinary arseholes, and especially confirmed atheist arseholes. This law would make discrimination okay so long as the discriminator [hereafter referred to as “the arsehole”] is religious, and clearly sets up three categories of people with different sets of rights: nice people who want everyone to get along, religious arseholes and non-religious arseholes. Into the latter category we can add arseholes who are religious but whose arseholery is clearly not religiously-based, which is a distinction I’m sure the current Supreme Court can have a lot of hours of fun with.

As a confirmed, unrelenting but unfortunately atheist arsehole, I will be boycotting Indiana from now on. I was planning to visit later this year, rent a massive gas guzzling car with sealskin hubcaps and drive around throwing money to passing orphans while snorting cocaine off the naked bodies of zero-size barely legal models, but I refuse to throw away my arsehole currency in a state that classifies me as a second-class citizen. I will instead visit a state that allows all arseholes to be equally arseholey[2].

I mean, what is the point of this law except to redefine arseholes into two categories? It can’t possibly be the case that the LGBT couple who are refused service will be all peachy about it just because the refuser is wearing a funny hat, or believes in some funny beardy dude; I accept that intent is important in framing law (see e.g. manslaughter vs. murder) but usually it is limited to classifying degrees of severity, not allowing some people to break the law with impunity. Sure, if the law defined degrees of discrimination it might make sense (and a whole new season of Law and Order would be born) but to just define away criminality for certain classes of arsehole? Isn’t that … discriminatory?

This Vox article tells me that 20 states in the USA have these laws in place, and suggests to me that arsehole freedom is the next great civil rights movement in America (we could call ourselves the moonies). It also makes me wonder if there are any adults left in America, because it suggests that most of these laws have been passed to protect “religious minorities” and gives an example of Amish trying to protect themselves from a law that requires them to hang a glowing light on their buggies. They had to go to court to get protection against that law? Couldn’t everyone just discuss the law and come up with a compromise? Apparently not in America. And did the Amish really think they were so special that they were willing to go to special legal lengths to ensure that they didn’t have the same road safety responsibilities as everyone else? And why should they?

The same applies to vaccination exemption laws. If you believe in some beardy dude who says that women are second-rate citizens, gay people should be shot (I’m looking at you, Californian arseholes!) and pi is 3.0, you get to endanger other peoples’ kids by refusing  a medically safe and proven technology. But if your intention is simply to endanger other peoples’ kids because you’re a misanthropic arsehole who is too smart to believe the blather of a 2000 year old book that was written before people understood how to be nice to each other then too bad! You gotta be nice or face a fine.

Why this extreme double standard against arseholes?

America needs a movement of arseholes, willing to throw off their shackles and rise up against discrimination, before it becomes impossible to be intelligent and mean in any state of the union! Rise up, arseholes of America, and reclaim your right to be mean to people you don’t like for no other reason, without having to dishonestly cloak it in superstitious blather! Truly, liberation of pure arseholes is the movement 21st Century America needs, and truly 21st Century America is ready for it!

fn1: What is it with Americans thinking they don’t need to specify which country their states are in?

fn2: Suggestions in comments please

Heading off the beaten track...

Heading off the beaten track…

The picture above[1] shows the latest estimated volume of arctic sea ice in March, 2015. The red line is 2015, and it looks like it is heading below the 2010 maximum. This is a disturbing trend because 2014 had a very high minimum, but the March maximum may well be very low. We know that 2014 was the first or second hottest year on record, and January and February this year were very warm. Even a cursory look at the Polar Science Center website reveals the very real possibility that we are heading towards another year of very low arctic sea ice extent, which will mean more flooding in the UK and Europe, and another crazy winter in north east America.

Destructive beauty

Destructive beauty

At the same time as the sea ice is struggling to reach a decent maximum, and thinning out every year, the Pacific appears to be entering a new era of vicious storms. The picture above[2] shows four tropical storms or cyclones generating around Australia simultaneously. One is cyclone Pam, which subsequently laid waste to Vanuatu (the emergency response is underway as I write this).

Science is having trouble keeping up with the pace of change that global warming is forcing on the planet. There is no scientific consensus on the role of global warming in typhoons and hurricanes, no solid understanding of where the arctic is heading, no established climate models that can understand the huge drought that is slowly consuming California, and only suspicions about the relationship between Sao Paulo’s deep water problems and Amazonian deforestation, but the inherent conservatism of the scientific process is no reason for us lay observers not to draw the obvious conclusion: Global warming is here, and it is wreaking havoc on our planet as we stand by and watch. Where is our planet heading? Or more relevantly, where is our reckless disrespect for the planet taking us?


As these portents unfold, today I read an article at Lawyers, Guns and Money describing a new phenomenon of “ecooptimism.” Apparently Al Gore has written an article arguing that we may be turning the corner in our response to AGW, because lots of solar panels are being installed; apparently Andrew Revkin gave a talk last year where he said that everything was going to be okay. Apparently Naomi Klein thinks we are able to find a way out of the worst problems that our planet is heading towards. I guess people think that recent agreements between China and the USA, action in the USA on power station standards, and China’s independent decisions to limit its coal use, are signs that we have turned a corner.

Another strain of ecooptimism on the part of economists like Nicholas Stern, decision makers and some of the major international bodies (such as the IMF) holds that even though things are a bit ragged right now, we still have time to reverse the situation by implementing some basic policies, and we can prevent further warming above the 2C “guardrail” without causing major damage to world economic growth. Under this form of optimism, even though we have delayed up until now, moderate changes in the next few years will still be sufficient to prevent major harm to either the environment or the global economy and growth opportunities for poor countries. This view of the global warming challenge holds that it is a serious threat to human civilization, but we can avert the collapse of modern society by imposing a moderate tax regime.

Should I be an ecooptimist? I think not, because these people are deeply wrong. They are ignoring the damage we have already done, misunderstanding how we need to think about the causes, and ignoring the powerful momentum of the climate system.

Ignoring the damage done

What is happening now in the arctic is not a coincidence: global warming is already destroying our planet. The damage being done by the collapse of the arctic sea ice is profound and widespread, and goes well beyond the possibility of polar bear extinction. The ridiculously resilient ridge driving California’s drought is almost certainly related to the collapse of the ice, as are the crazy winters in the eastern USA and the extreme rains in the UK. But California’s drought is also exarcebated by higher surface temperatures, reductions in winter snowfall and the role of unseasonally warm rains in destroying the snowpack that supports summer water reserves. Further south, Sao Paulo’s extreme drought is a response to deforestation (which is also driving global warming) and increasing temperatures. These two droughts alone threaten something like 40 million people in two of the world’s biggest economies, but no one has a serious plan to reverse either. And in the case of Sao Paulo, adaptation is impossible – while Californians, if they act now, could build a desalination plant, Sao Paulo is inland and its choices have essentially already run out. Of course American politics is so stupid that California won’t build a desalination plant until its water levels are so low that it doesn’t have enough water to generate the power that the plant needs …

Optimism about our future ignores that our future has already been changed by the damage we have already done.

Misunderstanding the causes

Somewhat ironically, economists are very good at confusing budgets and flows. When discussing national debts and tax burdens, mainstream economists have a tendency to think about the total national debt and current interest rates, rather than the amount of the debt coming due at any time, and the rate of change of interest payments. When thinking about global warming, they seem to focus on the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon rather than the total amount we are allowed to emit and have emitted. Under this way of thinking, it’s sufficient to reduce the rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions – you just need to get them lower, but not necessarily to zero or negative. But this is completely wrong: when we make any policy about mitigating future global warming, we need to think about the total allowable carbon emissions, historical and future, and the rate of emissions is only relevant in as much as it determines how quickly we need to go carbon negative. When one thinks about the carbon budget, rather than carbon emission rates, then a carbon tax is simply a temporary policy to reduce emission rates so that we can buy time to achieve our real goal, which is hitting zero carbon emissions before we hit the budget. If a policy has a limit to how much it can reduce rates of emission – as most carbon taxes have been shown to have – then they are necessarily temporary policies. But most mainstream economists think that we can achieve our goals through only a carbon tax and a bit of minor regulation. They see reducing the rate of emission as the end goal, rather than staying within a carbon budget. They never go that extra step to ask – once we have dealt with the low-hanging fruit (coal-fired power emissions) how are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions?

How are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions? Cement-making, international air travel and shipping will probably be carbon-intensive for the foreseeable future. So what are we going to do? If your response is “carbon capture and storage,” you don’t have a solution.

Ignoring the momentum in the system

We already have a certain amount of warming built into the system. Due to feedbacks and the dynamics of the climate system, warming and its effects will continue to propagate after carbon dioxide emissions stop. This means that even if we could wave a magic wand that stopped all emissions tomorrow, the effects of those emissions on the biosphere through phenomena such as glacier melt, desertification, sea ice melt and storm intensity will continue to worsen for some time to come, and the planet will continue to warm a little more. Whatever effects we are seeing now from warming are going to get worse and then linger even if we stop emissions tomorrow. What we are seeing happening now is not the worst possible outcome of our best possible policy response – it is only the beginning. Practically, even if US and Chinese policy-makers have an epiphany tomorrow it will be 10 years before we get a really effective climate policy in place, 20 years before we can get carbon zero. That means we have 20 years of worsening warming, and beyond that an unspecified period of further warming, and beyond that period a further unspecified period of time when the effects of that warming propagate. Sea level rise may lag warming by years, which means that even if we act fast to get carbon zero in 20 years, sea level rise may worsen for 10 or 20 years after that. Arctic sea ice melt is obviously very responsive to warming, but we are only seeing the start of it – the effects of warming will continue to worsen the ice melt for years after the warming stops.

The practical effects of our stupidity

What this means in practice is that the arctic ecosystem is doomed. If anyone believes that another 20 years of warming are going to leave any appreciable ice in the arctic then they are very foolish. A collapse in this system means the near-extinction of a wide range of animals including polar bears, major changes to the jet stream with potentially catastrophic effects on northern Europe and America (including possible widespread cooling), the worsening of drought in California and massive changes in the Siberian ecosystem. Even putting aside potentially fatal methane releases from the sub-arctic, this is going to lead to a world we alive today do not recognize. It may also lead to the collapse of fisheries across the Pacific and Atlantic, depending on how major fish species respond to the loss of plankton and apex predators. The Pacific islands are doomed, of course, because they will run out of fresh water long before they sink beneath the waves, and low-lying Bangladesh is going to see widespread inundation with huge human movements. Pacific storm seasons will get far worse and much of the currently-inhabited coastal property of the eastern USA will have to be abandoned. The cost in flood defense and storm protection for cities like New York will be staggering. Water and food security in the Himalayan catchments, North Africa and Australia will become precarious, and cycles of flooding and drought in places as diverse as the UK and Australia will become much more extreme.

All of this is locked in, even under the best possible policy future.


There are people born today who are going to come of age in a world where the environment is unrecognizable compared to that which most of the human species has become used to. Some 20 – 40 years from now our children and their children will grow up into a world that recognizes our generation as the greatest criminals in the history of the human species. They will look on the devastation we have wrought and their anger will be deep and powerful, especially when they see the way that so many of our generation deliberately and wilfully ignored what was coming, or even made policy decisions that would worsen it. They will look on politicians like Australia’s Tony Abbott, who abolished a carbon price while bleating about “intergenerational debt” with deep scorn, and they will look on people who voted for these criminals as selfish clowns. This generation will also face a future far more precarious than anything we can imagine, because the world will still be warming and they will have to make not only deep cuts to their carbon emissions, but difficult and dangerous decisions about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while dealing with food insecurity and natural disasters on a scale we can’t imagine. Our generation thinks that debates about carbon pricing are difficult; our children’s children will be arguing about whether to ban air travel and the steel industry.

This generation will respond to these challenges with political movements that live up to all the worst claims that conservatives make about the modern environmental movement. For example, because of the corruption and stupidity of current politicians in America, our children’s children will face a world without effective antibiotics. They will also need to reduce carbon emissions radically. The simple solution to both of these problems will be to ban meat eating or to allow only free range organic meat, making the worst nightmare vision of conservative critics of environmentalists and hippies into a reality. Maybe by then there will be new antibiotics that aren’t affected by the stupidity of the meat industry, but it’s highly unlikely that there will be a solution to the industry’s carbon emissions, and our children’s children will not be in a position where half solutions are acceptable.

Unless we act now, this is the world we will grow old in. I see no reason for ecooptimism, and I think that the people expressing optimism on the basis of partial technological solutions, or the comfort of easy first steps like a carbon tax, are fooling themselves if they think that we as a species are going to pull through this problem with such a simple and easy response. This is no time for optimism, but for a society-wide effort, at the same level as was required in world war 2 to eliminate fascism. If we don’t make that effort now, we will all be ecofascists 20 years from now.

There will be no denialists and no ecooptimists in that future.

fn1: Taken from the Polar Science Center

fn2: Taken from the hotwhopper blog

This is a tale of how I successfully broke all the rules in the travel advisory, and lived to tell the tale of a tear-gassing and a close encounter with a riot policeman. It’s also the high point of the long series of disasters that was my Turkish trip – starting with booking the ticket for the wrong month, and finishing with my shoes falling apart late on Monday evening – with 4 weeks of my round-the-world trip still to go …

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

I am on a round-the-world trip in which I am making three stops for work-related training: a week in Konstanz, 2 days in Switzerland, 10 days in London and a week in Seattle. Each training trip is a week apart, but to return to Japan between each trip would be both ludicrously exhausting and ludicrously expensive, and since I haven’t had any time off in a year it seemed like a good idea to fill the in-between weeks with holidays. The first of these is three days in Istanbul. My trip here is so stupidly unplanned that I a) booked my ticket from Zurich for the wrong month (and had to rebook when I got to the airport!) and b) didn’t check the political situation in Turkey. When I booked my hotel I found myself thinking “Taksim square – sounds really familiar” but I didn’t bother to check, and so didn’t discover that protesters have been targeting Taksim square since May last year.

It's just not cricket!

It’s just not cricket!

So I arrived at Taksim square after an enlightening taxi ride, dumped my stuff and went out for dinner. Returning from dinner, I was near my hotel door (like, literally) when my throat started burning and my eyes watering. Now, in Tokyo we sometimes have these things that I call “Shibuya moments” – you can be standing at a very sophisticated part of town, surrounded by classically sophisticated Japanese people, and suddenly be overwhelmed by this huge stench as if the universe had farted on you. So my first thought was “is this the Istanbul version of a Shibuya moment? Because if so they really need some environmental planning laws!” But then my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry kicked in and I thought “no, that’s impossible!” Then my rudimentary knowledge of Europe kicked in, and I thought – “tear gas! … football riot!” The last football riot I saw (in London) was very entertaining – watching arseholes having their arsehole bitten off by dogs is hugely entertaining. So, naturally, I headed towards what I thought was a football riot.

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

My investigation led me into a long shopping street called Istiklal, and I soon realized that this was not a football riot, and it was serious. For starters, there were a royal crapton of riot police. Every side street entering Istiklal was blocked by a single phalanx, and there were probably 100 at the top of the street (near my hotel!) where I first smelt the tear gas. In addition, they had turned up with more equipment than you would usually need outside of the South Korean riots of the 1980s (or Ukraine of the week before) – Armoured Personnel Carriers and a handful of water tanks, plus every policeman had a gas mask and every five or so had a rubber bullet gun. Furthermore, their buses were guarded by men armed with uzis or some kind of even bigger automatic rifle (being Australian, I’m not really familiar with this stuff).

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

Mostly everything was calm, and remarkably everyone was just wandering around doing their shopping, ignoring the whole thing. But every now and then you could hear this loud banging, and get a whiff of the tear gas (with immediate coughing and eye pain, just from the merest tendrils of the stuff!) And down the far end of the street there was a definite growing tension, and the sound of chanting. I found myself next to two young women who explained that this was a rally against some kind of nasty new internet censorship law (in which the government would get access to your browser history!), and part of a long-running campaign against authoritarianism that had begun last May and so far had seen six protesters die. I didn’t find out more though because as they were telling me this, a beer bottle came sailing sedately through the air and shattered on a nearby riot policeman’s helmet. At this point everyone started running, including the two girls I had been talking to (who had been at previous demos), and I opted for discretion over valour and ducked around a corner. At this point nothing bad had happened to me or anyone else I had seen.

These men endorse Bjork's approach to papparazzi

These men endorse Bjork’s approach to papparazzi

From here I did a bit of exploring and emerged in a new alleyway facing onto Istiklal. There was a wall of riot police between me and the main street and they didn’t seem interested in letting anyone through, so I stayed in the alley and took a photo. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lone riot policeman behind me, and turned around to hear him yelling at me and advancing rapidly towards me, baton in one hand and attitude in the other. By now everyone was strung out on the tension, and this guy had probably just been in a fight, he wasn’t impressed by my little 7000 yen camera. I backed up with my arms spread and said clearly and slowly “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Turkish,” and that immediately calmed him down but he was still fuming – he started yelling at me in the international language of “fuck off” (fortunately now obviously not intending to cave my head in) and I decided to take his sage advice. I probably should have taken, earlier, the advice of my embassy and not hung around large and aggressive gatherings, but hey … so far so good, right?

Not a romantic mist

Not a romantic mist

So now I found myself in another alley, and slightly lost. I wandered around briefly and found a group of people standing at the end of  a street, watching some guy firing a flare gun at the riot police. I guessed this wasn’t going to end well for anyone involved and moved on. I soon found another street that seemed more peaceful, and I was trying to find out how to move back towards my hotel when a group came around the corner, in hot debate with a couple of riot cops. As I watched, these cops grabbed a guy in the group and started wrestling with him, and everyone in the street screamed and started running at the same time. When in Rome, and all that – I headed off with them. I didn’t have much time to see what was going on, but the afflicted guy seemed like one of the gypsy-type characters who hang around the square, one of his assailants was unslinging a plastic bullet gun, and as I headed around the corner I heard a loud bang. My guess is that chap – who seemed entirely innocent – is currently nursing a deep and unpleasant bruise.

An essential truce

An essential truce

From here I ran around a corner to discover another street filled with tear gas, fortunately far enough away that again I only got its outlying tendrils – and again developed stinging eyes and a rapid cough. That stuff is nasty, and the excitement was rapidly becoming warying. Things also seemed to be heating up, and I had the impression that the cops were going to start getting indiscriminate, so I ducked into a nearby pub. Here I found football and beer, and whiled away a pleasant 45 minutes watching Galatasaray win their game. Because Turkish soccer is quite violent the second half had 10 minutes of injury time, so I ducked out after five. On the street I found the above scene, of riot police gathered at the nearby cafe to watch the last five minutes of the game. Only in Europe …

So, I’ve confirmed that you can safely ignore all your government’s travel advisories. Or, more likely, I was very lucky. That first encounter with the riot policeman could have been a holiday-spoiling (not to mention life-spoiling) moment, and I really shouldn’t have gone sniffing out trouble. I get the impression that this campaign against corruption is a pretty reasonable thing, and the goals of the demonstrators generally laudable. But regardless of who is right on whatever issues beset Turkey (and I think there may be many) I hope that it gets resolved soon, without further loss of life (or interruptions of football viewing). My impression is that Turkey has a rocky but ultimately peaceful and successful future waiting for it. I hope these riots turn out to be a positive influence on that future…

Imagine our planet sends out a colony ship, to colonize some distant planet. It’s flying at near light speed, but the journey is still expected to take about 300 years; time dilation effects on the ship mean shipboard it’s only, say, 150 years – 5 or 6 generations. While the ship is speeding to its destination, development continues on earth, and about 100 years after launch they discover faster-than-light travel. By the time the colony ship reaches its destination the planet has already been colonized, populated, developed and matured. The colonists arrive to a huge party, to discover their mission was pointless.

If you were one of the middle-aged residents of that colony ship, would you be happy with the society that sent your great-grandparents out into the dark? You spent your entire youth and young adulthood in a tin can, for nothing except the promise that soon – in your lifetime – you would arrive at a new world and have the chance to make a unique contribution to human history. Instead, some bunch of cosseted earth-siders got their first, because they had the good fortune to be born 200 years later. Your contribution becomes a footnote, for which you waited 40 years in the freezing dark, drinking your own piss.

Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion about the viability of colonizing interstellar space, started from one of John Quiggin’s economists’ assumptions. In amongst all the technical jiggery-pokery about giga-joules and the Great Filter, a few people have pointed out the moral bankruptcy of colony ships, based on the simple and obvious fact that the children are being born into a tin can, and have no way out. Thinking about this at the gym (which, presumably for weight purposes, a colony-ship wouldn’t have), it occurred to me that the moral issues associated with colonization are getting a lot more real than those discussed in the Crooked Timber post, and that we need to be aware of a serious risk of moral hazard, and of serious ethical challenges, in our lifetime. I speak, of course, of the Mars One private mission to Mars.

Mars One and moral hazard

Mars One aims to settle up to 40 humans on Mars by 2025, on a one way mission. The mission will be financed by some kind of Big Brother style TV show documenting the (no doubt fascinating) process of colonizing Mars. The settlement is intended to slowly develop, even to ultimately be able to expand using local materials – hopefully to even build a dome of some kind large enough to grow trees. But it is likely that for the foreseeable future it will be dependent on supplies from Earth, and that these supplies will be coming through the parent company – which is financing itself through the sale of research opportunities and the TV options. For a few years this seems like a pretty viable source of income, but people will get bored of the Mars TV, and anyway we don’t know what will happen to that parent company. This all raises the very real possibility that the company will fail, at which point those people on Mars are ostensibly going to be cut off from their supplies. There is also the possibility that they will breed out there in the Red, and that their children won’t be happy about their birth situation. Which raises two scenarios demanding attention from the people of earth:

  1. The company goes bust, and suddenly the task of supplying those 40+ people (80 if the adults have been breeding efficiently) falls on … who? A government will have to step in and bail out those people, because no one on Earth is going to tolerate the possibility that 40 or more people in the world’s first ever interstellar colony will starve to death because of a corporate bankruptcy. This project is too hope-y to fail. Once the company gets those shmucks onto Mars, the rest of the world is going to be basically strong-armed by morality and sentiment into backing the project no matter what. And given that currently there are only three groups – NASA, ESA and Russia – capable of getting stuff to Mars, this means it will be Europe, the USA and Russia that foot the bill if anything goes wrong. This is classic moral hazard, banker bailouts on an interstellar scale (if not financial magnitude): the private company raises a couple of billion bucks to sink into a stupid high-risk project and then, when it collapses, for reasons not predicted by the regulatory authorities, it can’t be allowed to go down.
  2. The company continues, and the settlement is a success, but the Children of Mars decide they would like to swim in the sea. They point out to their earthbound cousins that they didn’t ask to be born in a Mars colony and they would like to go home. If the original company is gone under this problem will be even more pronounced: not only is the ESA and NASA supplying the adults, but now the kids point out (quite reasonably) that they want out of their squalid little collection of domes. But nobody has the means to get them out. That wasn’t planned for. To get them out, space agencies will have to send the component parts for a rocket, then the fuel, and the folks on Mars will have to assemble that rocket, and with no option for test flights, the kids will hop on and come back to Earth. That’s a hideously expensive project, but someone on Earth is going to have to foot the bill and it’s going to be very hard to deny that responsibility. Of course, once the kids start going back, the adults will demand the same right. Which means that Earth has to either tell them – we’ll keep supplying you till you die, in a society with no children (who’s going to care for you?), or “sure, you made this decision 20 years ago when you were young and stupid, but we’ll bail you out now.” That’s classic moral hazard.

You can see the way this will play out on earth, but in case 2) it is possible that the original inventors of the project will be dead. No one will even be around to be angry at. And, in a really visceral way, no one is going to be able to say no. Of course one can imagine other scenarios: imagine that the first settlement was made by the USA under Kennedy, and they were willing to spend 2% of their GDP on it; 40 years and a couple of financial crises later, with an increasingly oligarchical and corrupt government, suddenly Americans have a huge public debt and a weird resistance to growing more, their economy is declining, economic power is shifting east – but they still have to commit to sending supplies to That Stupid Colony. The kids of the new era might think they had been shackled with an unreasonable burden (“we could spend that money on Obamacare”) but of course, their choices about it are restricted to either abandoning the colony to starve, or paying some fantabulous amount of money to bring them back. This is hardly a fair choice to saddle your grandkids with. And of course, the original colonists are the people who made the stupid choice to go there, but even if you made them pay they wouldn’t be able to – no human being can work off a debt that size.

Note also the costs of supply will escalate if there are unforeseen medical problems associated with low gravity: then money will have to be sunk into solving the problem, and not by the company that sent them up there. And who is going to educate the kids? That is usually a state responsibility, but no one is going to be setting up a school on Mars. A solution will have to be found based on some kind of school of the air.

But there are other, unpleasant moral issues that will arise in the future of such a colony.

The morality of forced interstellar stardom

Mars One aim to pay for their project through some kind of television project, that will start from 2025. No doubt for a short time this will be hugely popular, but after a few years of watching people wandering around in a couple of inflatable domes the viewers are going to get tired. Revenues will decline. The company will have growing costs though, as the colony needs supplies to feed more members. What will the company do? It might be able to make up the shortfall in research services (“you want to investigate that crater? We’ll send a rover”) but there will be a limit to this, and of course as they try to sell more research services the price will go down. So then, naturally, they will begin to try to make the TV show more appealing. And how are they going to do that?

Zero-G porn.

Of course, for starters they’ll use the usual run of Big Brother-style offerings: stupid game shows, conflict, diary-room confessions, titillating shower scenes (well, maybe not, on Mars). But this will pale after a few years, and we all know what will happen next. Pressure will be brought to bear. Things will be done. People’s relationships will be laid bare. The failing relationships will be filmed; the young couples getting together; people’s most private moments. And the colonists will face an unpleasant choice: the person who supplies your water is telling you you need to make your tv show more “appealing” by doing X. Will you refuse? Probably not. And then, of course, there will be children in all this. Will they even be told about the cameras? At some point they will realize that all their earliest years of development were being filmed against their will by some arseholes a billion kms away, and watched by a million more arseholes. When they come of age, into their tiny domed town of 100 people, they’re probably going to have some righteous wrath saved up.

What will they do? What should we do about what they’re going to do, what has been done to them? When these kids, who have never been to a prom (but have seen prom-date movies), who have never been to a nightclub (but have watched music videos), who have a choice of, like, 6 partners (but have watched a thousand rom-coms) demand to return to a land with trees and standing water, what are the people on earth going to say to them? “We enjoyed watching you grow up on a strange planet, but we can’t afford to have you back”?

What does a riot look like, in a domed city made of plastic on a world with no atmosphere?

There is also, of course, the endless possibility for horror in this settlement. Suppose a dome blows, and the usual emergency systems don’t work properly: the colony loses its farm section, and no matter how hard we try we can’t get the food to them in time because it’s physically impossible. There’ll be no eating grass roots and insects and watching children with swollen bellies but knowing a precious few will survive, like Ethiopia in the 1980s. Everyone will have the certain knowledge that they will die. Will we be forced to watch as they turn to cannibalism? Who will turn off the tv feed? What if they have a broadcast installation? Then the videos will be going up on youtube no matter what the company does, and anyone with a dish will be able to see the sordid terrible end of our first stellar mission. We can all imagine hundreds of similar scenarios, and all of them on film by design.

Preparing for the moral hazard of Mars One

It’s not looking likely that anyone is going to ban Mars One, but it seems to me that as a society we need to come up with a plan for what will happen as a result of it. This isn’t Jonestown or even Greenland in the 15th century: whether we as individuals agree with the project, once it is in place on Mars we will all be watching it and cheering it on. Which means that we need to recognize that there is a risk that things will go wrong, and future generations – or us, in 30 years time – will have to bail out at enormous cost a project which was marginal from the beginning. I think governments need to find a way to prepare for that, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the first step in that preparation is to make Mars One think about the future. At the very least, some of the capital they raise needs to be put aside against eventualities. Some possible uses for a Mars wealth fund include:

  1. Simple investment, to ensure that by the time things go wrong there is a stock of money available to finance special projects
  2. Trust funds for the kids. They’re going to want stuff, and we’re going to need to provide it, so we should prepare
  3. Funding directly to government-run space research projects, especially projects for deep space propulsion and Mars exploration. If the funds are used to develop alternative ways of getting to and living on Mars, it improves the options for those people in the future
  4. Contingency funds for if the Mars population grows too fast
  5. Profits could be invested in sending extra supplies to Mars, to build redundancy and stockpiles

With mechanisms like this in place, bailouts will be less costly, and there will be insurance against risk.

Laws also need to be passed. Governments need to look very carefully at the contracts these colonists are signing, and add clauses about the rights of colonists to refuse new entertainment demands, and the way that those contracts might extend (or be inferred to extend) to children. Anything involving porn or cam-girl type stuff needs to be carefully discussed. Some kind of dispute resolution system is going to be necessary, possibly even independent oversight. Imagine, for example, that a Mars colonist is being pressured to do some semi-nude stuff, but doesn’t want to: what options does he have to resolve that? What if the company refuses him access to a workplace rights lawyer? The company at the very least should be forced to establish an independent communications system, guaranteed by government, so that people on Mars can have a reliable and independent way to contact friends, relatives and conciliation bodies. Otherwise they will essentially be slaves.

I don’t think any of this has been considered.

Are Mars One taking the piss?

I’m noting that there is an application fee of between $5 and $75 for potential Martians, and they are hoping to recruit a million applicants. If the Mars One people are planning to fold before the project is initiated they will make a lot of money. It seems like a lot of aspects of this project are going to run on a very tight deadline, and haven’t been thought through. Is it possible that the whole thing is a get-rich-quick scheme that is never going to see reality? It seems very possible to me. But if not, we as a society need to be thinking very carefully about what we want to tolerate up there, and how we’re going to manage the ethical challenges and moral hazards of a private initiative to colonize Mars.

Recently a major economics paper was found to contain basic excel errors, among other problems, and an amusing storm of controversy is growing around the paper. The controversy arises because the paper was apparently quite influential in promoting the most recent round of austerity politics in the western world, and the authors themselves used it actively in this way. The authors even managed to find a magic number – 90% – at which government debt (as a proportion of GDP) throttles growth, a threshold that many small government activists and “sustainable deficit” types have been seeking for years. It’s like manna from heaven!

There’s been a lot of hilarity arising from this, about how woeful the economics field is and about how vulnerable policy-makers on crucial issues like government spending can be to even quite terrible research that supports their agenda. But there has also been some criticism on statistics and academic blogs about the use of excel for advanced analysis, and what a bad idea it is. Andrew Gelman has a thread debating how terrible excel is as a computational tool, and Crooked Timber has a post (with excellent graphic!) expressing incredulity that anyone would do advanced stats in excel. While I agree in general, I feel an urgent need to jump to the defense of MS Excel.

MS Excel is great. It’s much, much more convenient than a calculator, and it can be used to do quite complex calculations (as in sums and multiplications) in multiple directions that would take ages on a calculator. On most computers now the calculator is buried or, if you’re a windows user, crap, and if you need anything more than addition it’s much more convenient to drag out excel. Sure it takes a moment to load compared to your calculator function, but it is so much easier to compare numbers, to calculate exponents and logs, and to present simple results in excel than in a calculator. As a simple case in point: if you get regression coefficients from Stata you can copy and paste them into excel and exponentiate to get relative risks, etc.; then you copy the formulas below, run a new regression model (with, e.g. random effects that weren’t in the previous one) and paste the results to enable you to compare between models quickly and easily. Similarly, if you’re checking a paper to see if they calculated odds ratios or relative risks, you can chuck those numbers into excel and do the comparisons with the contingency table right there in front of you. It offers a simple, graphically convenient way to visualize numbers. This is especially useful when the task you’re approaching is conceptually very simple (like a contingency table) but takes a bit of time to do on a hand calculator, and takes a bit of time to convert to the file formats required in Stata or R. In the time it takes me to think about how to structure the problem, input four lines of data to R, and then write the code to calculate the odds ratios, I can do the whole thing in excel, have the contingency table in front of me to check I’ve made no transcription errors from the paper, and fiddle quickly with changing numbers.

If you’re doing cost-effectiveness analysis in TreeAge (shudder) or R, excel is a really useful tool both for outputting results to something that is vaguely attractive to use, and for doing ballpark calculations to check that your models are behaving reasonably. This is especially useful if you’re doing stochastic Markov models, that can take hours or days to run in TreeAge, because you can’t trust software like that to give you the correct answer if you try to treat your stochastic model as a simple decision tree (because of the way that TreeAge faffs around with probability distributions, which is non-intuitive). Make a few simple assumptions, and you can do approximate calculations yourself in excel, and fiddle with key numbers – cohort size or a few different parameters – and see what effect they have.

Recently I was helping someone with survival analysis and she was concerned that her definition of time to drop out was affecting her results. She conducted a sensitivity analysis in Stata to see what effect it was having, and although with correct programming she could have produced all the material she needed in Stata, the time it takes to do this and debug your code can be time-consuming if you aren’t a natural. It’s much easier with modern machines to just run the regression 10 times with different values of drop-out time and plot the output hazard ratios in excel.

So, I think excel is a very useful tool for advanced modeling, precisely because of its ease of use and its natural, intuitive feel – the properties that recent excel bashers claim make it such a terrible device. While I definitely think it should not be used for advanced models themselves, I find it a hugely valuable addition to the model-building process. Reproducible code and standardized tools are essential for publishable work, but unless you are one of those people who never does any fiddling in the background to work out what’s going on in your model, excel will turn out to be your go-to tool for a wide range of support tasks.

In any case, the bigger problem with Rogoff and Reinhart’s work was not the excel error. Even if they had got the excel code right, their results would still have been wrong because their modeling method was absolutely appalling, and should never have seen the light of day, even at a conference. The main flaws in their work were twofold:

  • They binned years together, essentially giving different years different weights in the final model
  • They stripped the years out of their time series context, so crucial information contained in the time ordering of deficits and growth was lost

I think the second flaw is the most specifically terrible. By using this method they essentially guaranteed that they would be unable to show that Keynesian policies work, and they stripped the cause-effect relationship from all data collected in the Keynesian era (which lasted from the start of their data series to about 1970). In the Keynesian era, we would expect to see a sequence in which deficit increases follow negative growth, so unless the negative growth periods are very short and random, Reinhart and Rogoff’s method guarantees that this looks like an association between negative growth and higher deficits. If Keynesian policies actually work, then we would subsequently see an increase in growth and a reduction in deficits – something that by design in Reinhart and Rogoff’s model would be used to drive the conclusion that higher debt causes lower growth.

In short, no matter what package they used, and no matter how sophisticated and reproducible their methods, Reinhart and Rogoff’s study was designed[1] to show the effect it did. The correct way to analyze this data was through the presentation of time series data, probably analyzing using generalized least squares with a random effect for country, or something similar. Using annual data I think it would probably be impossible to show the relationship between debt and growth clearly, because recessions can happen within a year. But you could probably achieve better, more robust results in excel using proper time series data than you could get in R from Reinhart and Rogoff’s original method.

The problem here was the operator, not the machine – something which should always be remembered in statistics!


fn1: I use the term “was designed” here without any intention to imply malfeasance on the part of the authors. It’s a passive “was designed”.

Did Tubs do right?


Do Japanese cats understand cats from Australia?  Is feline a universal language? Do they understand “get off there you bastard” in any language? This birthday card from my cat to me shows he speaks the language of his household , though hiragana are visible if you squint. Perhaps he is bilingual but lacks the manual dexterity for kanji?

Note also the single cat biscuit under the ribbon. Who says cats  can’t feel love?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers