Monday, 29 February 2016

This Could Be The Most Interesting Programme On Television All Year

I was just watching some catch-up TV, and the show I was most looking forward to was the Channel 4 documentary about the hitherto 'undiscovered' tribe of Amazonians, centred on the studies of the Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Morellis, and the first meeting of a tribe that were ostensible hunter-gatherers.

To begin with the tribe were very fearful of white men, and it took Morellis a whole year and a practical understanding of their language and mannerisms to realise that these Amazonian hunter-gatherers had been treated very badly by white fortune-seekers looking for gold, by illegal loggers, and by those who enslaved native men to tap rubber trees. In fact, in one of the most startling moments, a photo was shown of such a group from yesteryear with chains round their necks and wrists.

After Morellis had spent some time patrolling up and down the river, sussing them out, there was a meeting, which was sufficiently successful enough to ensure the Amazonians no longer feared all white men. When both parties finally learned to put their guards down, there were some very moving scenes between the two groups.

Some will be perturbed by the fact that more advanced people have come along and disturbed a tribe of people otherwise living in virtual isolation from the rest of the world's population. But the Amazonians weren't exactly having a blast there - their daily existence was a continual struggle for survival, and always with the spectre of being attacked by poisonous snakes and jaguars, and, particularity interestingly if you're someone who knows your Bible, experiencing repeated feelings of shame for being mostly naked.

This programme was a rare chance to experience something terrifically fascinating and unique - a real life present-day social experiment back to our hunter-gatherer past (even more intriguing given the fact that rainforests are not the most natural habitat of hunter-gatherers). As well as getting to observe the behaviour of people one is never going to meet in virtually all other places in the world, there were for me two other notable things. Firstly, the Amazonians had no obvious status ornaments, yet there was evidently a hierarchy. And secondly, despite no socialised views of religion or the divine, they believed in heaven and the afterlife.

The programme was compelling viewing for virtually every minute of its duration. But perhaps the standout thing I observed is this. It's quite possible that in just one hour of observing these Amazonian hunter-gatherers we have clear exhibition of an analogue to the precursors of all the world's religions: that homo-sapiens have evolved the hardware to experience awe and wonder in a way that appears to make us worshipfully inclined (something the writer of Ecclesiastes noted in chapter 3 verse 11), and that we have always possessed all the blueprints for hierarchicalism, which makes the organised religions that have emerged from our evolved hardware not in the least bit surprising, and perhaps even somewhat inevitable.  

Saturday, 20 February 2016

It's So Easy To Lose Interest

I doubt I've ever made this known, but in a life that is so abundantly demanding of any interested person's mind, I am highly unlikely to attempt to read or get very much out of hugely long articles or lengthy papers - I just want the back of the envelope version pretty much all the time.
Don't get me wrong, if there are books or papers I really want to devour, I can easily enjoy digesting them in the comfort of a relaxing armchair, but online you're unlikely to pique my interest with interminably long-winded blogs, articles or papers. To use a food analogy, when I'm online I don't want to be eating big meals, I want to be nibbling at little tidbits
I'm sharing this not as any kind of act of prescription, but just because it's a realisation that has become more and more prominently acute in my own awareness of myself, and I was starting to wonder why I didn't used to feel it with quite so much vigour, and whether it's because the internet now makes more demands on our attention, or whether, as I think is the case, most of us prefer the back of the envelope version but differ in the extent to which we own that desire.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Economics Of Valentine's Day & Other Related Matters

Economists are always being accused of trying to reduce everything to money and mathematics. Critics will make assertions such as: "You can't put a price on love" and "There are more ways to analyse life than mathematically" and so on. But as one of the most well known quotes from any economic text book reminds us, economics is even grander in its claims:

"Economists are often accused of believing that everything — health, happiness, life itself — can be measured in money. What we actually believe is even odder. We believe that everything can be measured in anything."
David Friedman

When it comes to matters of the heart, perhaps the key thing that underpins it is information. Romance is about discovering more and more of a person, rather like how an explorer discovers more and more of a new country. Discovering more and more of a person is about obtaining more and more information.

A friend once asked me for some advice about a guy she was seeing: do I stick with him or cut and run? I neglected to answer, as I didn’t feel it was my place - plus I lacked most of the relevant information couples require to decide whether to stay together.

Information, of course, is the key thing about their relationship that couples have and outsiders don’t. At the point of asking for advice my friend had a trade-off between what she presently knew and what she might go on to know in the future. Being in a relationship means learning new things about your beloved every day, and this new information is bound to have an effect on whether any decision to stay or go was the right one. Given that at present she was unsure about whether her partner was the one she wanted to stay with, her dilemma was really down to one question: will future information change things for the better or the worse?

If she thought the former she may well be inclined to stick it out for longer; if the latter, now would be the time to say goodbye. The trouble is, of course, future information is by definition unknown in the present, as the present merely gives us probability indicators about future stages of a relationship.

Because information is key, and because relationships are dynamical, your relationship with your partner is, like most things in life, based on a series of probability estimates. A Valentine's Day card to your partner is, from your point of view, a way of signalling that at this moment in time the probability of staying together is greater than not. And unless you're married, the probability that you'll repeat the process next year is conditioned primarily by the information you'll obtain between now and Feb 14th 2017. In the meantime, if you want a test that's a bit edgier and intrepid, you could always try this one on for size.

 * You can, of course, send a Valentine's Day card to a prospective beloved - an act designed for those who can't charm the pants off anyone they fancy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

On That So-Called "Ghastly" Substance

I wonder what Gordon "Let's nationalise our oil fields" Brown and Ed "The nefarious multinational oil companies monopolise to the tune of inflated prices" Miliband are thinking today with the news that crashing oil prices have engendered a market slump. Are they finally ready to understand how supply and demand work in the oil industry?
The problem is, the left, being prone to conspiracy theories, were quite willing to go along with the confused narrative. In the run-up to the last election Ed Miliband had convinced swathes of people that energy providers were a monstrous cartel that were ripping everyone off (an imputation I was happy to call out as rubbish at the time).
A little bit of common sense ought to tell anyone that the oil industry is quite different to the picture the left paints. Except in extreme cases (see below), oil companies are not making unconscionable profits, and therefore the calls to tax the bejeebus out of them and impose price controls are fraught. When there is a spike in prices, most people ask how the so-called monopolising companies can get away with ripping us off. I'm guessing it never occurred to them to ask why, if they really are monopolising the industry, the prices weren't higher much sooner? That is, if providers suddenly became greedy when prices were high, why weren't they greedy when prices were low?
The answer, of course, is that what changed wasn't a sudden bout of greediness from the suppliers, it was a change in supply and demand. As more countries become prosperous their demand for oil increases, which affects prices. As the world is chaotic and prone to lots of interruptions in the supply of oil (both present interruptions and future instability), there are inevitable spikes in oil prices in times of stress and unrest. Governmental tax increases on oil or price controls won't redress turmoil in the Middle East or severe weather conditions or instability between Russia and the West - hence they won't make the situation better. In fact they would have the opposite effect as oil companies would be more insecure about repairing their supply chains and about making future investment if politicians are just going to over-tax them or restrict the natural price mechanisms from which their initial investments bear fruit.
Oil companies invest in the industry by playing the long game to the tune of tens, often hundreds, of millions of pounds - investments that require years, often decades, to reach fruition, and part of that investment is based on derivatives concerning future supply, future demand and future prices.
Ironically, the major problem with oil as a resource gets mentioned far too infrequently - and that is the problem of over-reliance on it by some countries, and an over-abundance of oil reserves concentrated in a handful of countries with highly unstable populations and dictatorship governments.
On the first part, the over-reliance is known in economics as Dutch disease (a term that was coined to describe the decline of the manufacturing sector in the Netherlands after the discovery of the large Groningen natural gas field about 50 years ago), whereby relying too much on the revenue from one type of good leads to under-investment in the country's other goods and resources.
On the second part, slow growth and economic hardship have often been correlated with oil wealth in the hands of dictatorships, where the resources are controlled by the government and not very beneficial to the population. Naturally, nations that rely on these dictatorships for oil often have a cosy relationship with them, when really they should be standing up and condemning many of their barbarian practices.