Science

The author is Lars Mytting, and the subtitle is Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.  If only every book could be this good and to the point!  Here is your Norway fact of the day:

Even in oil-rich Norway, as astonishing 25 percent of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood, and half of that is wood chopped by private individuals.

In per capita terms, however, Bhutan is number one for wood chopping.  Yet in the 1960s, the government of Norway had its own advisory body for the burning of wood chips.

I enjoyed this segue:

Although it may seem strange today, chain saws were regarded with suspicion at that time and there was much resistance to their use…

There were quite a few colorful players in the early days of the chain-saw industry in the 1950s.  The competition was hard and the business attracted people with a fiery temperament.  One legendary character was John Svensson (alias Chain Saw Svensson), who imported saws made by the Canadian firm Beaver.  He had been arrested and tortured during the war and for the rest of his life suffered pains in his arms and joints; when demonstrating the Beaver saws he always made a point of stressing how the vibrations that passed up through the handle brought a welcome relief to his aching joints.

Svensson was not a man to take professional disappointments lying down.  On one occasion he was so annoyed when a visiting government delegation refused to let him demonstrate his chain saw to them that he felled five trees across the road to stop them from leaving.

The interest of a Norwegian man in his firewood often rises sharply in his sixties.  Perhaps this sentence from the book says it all:

It took a while, but that didn’t bother them, as long as it turned out the way they wanted.

You can order the book here, recommended.

Max Mendez Beck emails me:

Given the advent of statistics in sports that occurred in the last five years, I am struck by how well soccer works as a metaphor for current epistemological debates regarding the use (and primacy) of quantitative versus qualitative data in social science research. While the three major American sports (football, basketball, and baseball) have been overtaken by a quantitative obsession (count how many tables and numbers you see on an average ESPN show), soccer is emblematic of a sport that is quite difficult to measure quantitatively.

Consider how easy it is to determine who did well in an average NBA game without needing to even watch it. You can just look at points, assists, rebounds, steals, turnovers, etc. In soccer, individual statistics are almost nonexistent. Even as major sports channels have attempted to incorporate quantitative measures into their soccer broadcasts–for example, by showing the number of kilometers a player has covered when he gets subbed out (a pretty uninformative statistic on its own)–these numbers have not caught on with the regular fan.

While in basketball everyone debates about who “the best ever” is by referring to their career averages in points, field goal percentage, PER, etc. In soccer the only statistic that is ever used is goals scores, and goals scored is only one small dimension of a player, even smaller if he is not a striker. It would be silly to judge Andrés Iniesta or Zinedine Zidane on how many goals they scored in a season.

So what is it about soccer that makes it so hard to quantify? Or what makes American sports so easy to measure? One obvious answer is the length of the units that can be easily separated and analyzed. In basketball its a maximum of 24 seconds, in baseball its essentially a pitch (or an at bat), and in football its each snap. For soccer, the only apparent unit to separate out is the 45 minute halftime mark. Changes in possession could be another measure, but even then a team’s single possession could be several minutes long.

However, the real challenge comes in measuring individual accomplishments. Just recently I was watching a Barcelona game and Iniesta clearly was having an amazing game (as was mentioned several times by the announcer), and yet the things that made him have a great game were only describable in words and not numbers. There was a beautiful and sudden “regate” or dribble around a defender before he passed it on to a teammate for a quick counter attack. There was the beautiful pass between defenders that led to an assist for the first goal. There was the sudden change in direction and over the top pass to the other side of the field that put the defenders on their heels. Many of these moves are incredibly situational; they have to do with the rhythm of the game and the need to speed it up or slow it down. Nothing in the boxscore could truly capture these attributes.

So the question is: Is soccer something that can’t be measured in numbers?

Here are various readings on the topic.

Natalia Nollenberger, Núria Rodríguez-Planas, and Almudena Sevilla have a paper on this topic (click on the AEAweb pdf), presented at this year’s AEA meetings, the core result is this:

This paper investigates the effect of gender-related culture on the math gender gap by analysing math test scores of second-generation immigrants, who are all exposed to a common set of host country laws and institutions. We find that immigrant girls whose parents come from more gender-equal countries perform better (relative to similar boys) than immigrant girls whose parents come from less gender-equal countries, suggesting an important role of cultural beliefs on the role of women in society on the math gender gap. The transmission of cultural beliefs accounts for at least two thirds of the overall contribution of gender-related factors [emphasis added by TC].

I believe we will learn more yet when women stop improving, relative to men, at chess.  But so far that has not yet happened.

That is the new Robert Trivers memoir, I just ordered my copy, sure to be outstanding.

Here is a new profile of Trivers, based on the book, recommended.

Nobel Prize poll results

by on January 6, 2016 at 2:00 pm in Data Source, Economics, Science | Permalink

The MRUniversity booth at the AEA meetings polled economists on a walk-by basis, as to who should win the next Nobel Prize.  The top five on the list were:

Robert Barro

Paul Romer

Esther Duflo

Partha Dasgupta

William Nordhaus

Do check out the whole list at the link.  Yoram Bauman was perhaps the dark horse candidate.

“Do I think they have the capacity to make a hydrogen bomb? I think that’s virtually impossible,” said Daniel Pinkston, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear weapons who is currently at Babes-Bolyai University in Romania.

…South Korean intelligence specialists also were skeptical and dismissed Kim’s words as rhetoric. “We don’t have any information that North Korea has developed an H-bomb,” Yonhap News Agency quoted an unidentified intelligence official as saying. “We do not believe that North Korea, which has not succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear bombs, has the technology to produce an H-bomb.”

That is from The Washington Post, December 10, 2015.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether the test actually was a hydrogen bomb.

…people don’t usually give machine intelligence much credence when it comes to judging beauty. That may change with the launch of the world’s first international beauty contest judged exclusively by a robot jury.

The contest, which requires participants to take selfies via a special app and submit them to the contest website, is touting new sophisticated facial recognition algorithms that allow machines to judge beauty in new and improved ways.

I wonder who will win.

robot

The full story is here, via Michelle Dawson.

A new age of discovery

by on January 4, 2016 at 12:51 am in Current Affairs, Science, Travel | Permalink

Caving offers explorers opportunities to test themselves that until recently were not even known to exist. Speleology “has changed massively” in the past two decades, says Andy Eavis, widely considered the world’s foremost caver. The Krubera cave in Georgia, near the Black Sea, down which a Ukrainian team descended in 2004, is twice as deep, at more than 2,000 metres, as the Pierre St Martin cave in the French Pyrenees, which had been reckoned the deepest when Mr Eavis plumbed it in 1971. A new technique of laser scanning can measure such “chambers” far more accurately than before. Mr Eavis still marvels at the great chambers still being found in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. In 1981 he was the first to explore a cave there that is still the largest by area in the world—it could enclose the Hollywood Bowl. Now South China, among other places, is offering new opportunities for cavers. Its Miao Room, penetrated in 1989, is 852 metres long, and the largest by volume.

Access to forest canopies is also being transformed by technology. Towers, balloons, inflatable rafts, light aerial walkways, drones and even giant cranes that have been helicoptered into place allow scientists to see what is going on under once-inaccessible foliage. A new remote-sensing technology known as lidar can illuminate objects high up under the canopy and analyse them through reflected light.

Not as good as jetpacks, but in the meantime it will have to do.  The ocean depths remain mostly unexplored, although a variety of attempts are underway, as discussed in the article.

It is also suggested, contrary to what I had thought, that there are still a variety of undiscovered peoples in the Amazon.

That article is from this week’s Economist.

There is a new paper (pdf) on this question by Bakker, Krafts, and Woltjer, here is the abstract:

We present new estimates of TFP growth at the sectoral level and an amount of sectoral contributions to overall productivity growth.  We improve on Kendrick (1961) in several ways including expanding the coverage of sectors, extending estimates to 1941, and better accounting for labor quality.  The results have important implications including that the pattern of productivity growth was generally ‘yeasty’ rather than ‘mushroomy’, that the 1930s did not experience the fastest TFP growth of the 20th century, and that the role of electricity as a general purpose technology does not explain the ‘yeastiness’ of manufacturing in the 1920s.

They instead suggest that TFP growth is rising throughout the 1920s through the 1960s, a view which I cannot quite agree with.  I view the 1960s as a time when previous ideas spread widely, rather than the key years of invention.

My strictly intuitive, historical guess is that TFP growth peaked in the 1890-1930 period, give or take.

More generally, the TFP concept is most useful, and most exact, when TFP growth is low rather than high.  The bigger TFP growth might be, the more you have to worry about unmeasured changes in labor quality, and also worry about what is “technical progress embodied in capital goods” as opposed to “sheer accumulation.”  When there is less progress, these measurement issues are smaller too.

I am most skeptical of TFP estimates for China, even if you believe the underlying statistics.  Compared to “the global frontier,” TFP growth for China has been pretty close to zero, for centuries.  Compared to “the frontier within China”…er…Chinese TFP growth and “embodied accumulation of foreign ideas through savings and investment” become pretty much the same thing.  The distinction theory was trying to create then has been abolished.

So I’m not convinced by the results of this paper, but they are a useful corrective to excess certainty about Alexander Field and the previous view that the peak of American TFP was the 1930s.

In any case, thumbs up to any paper which uses the word “yeasty.”

Fermat’s Library

by on December 31, 2015 at 2:13 pm in Economics, Education, Science, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is Fermat’s Library:

Fermat’s Library is a platform for illuminating academic papers. Just as Pierre de Fermat scribbled his famous last theorem in the margins, professional scientists, academics and citizen scientists can annotate equations, figures and ideas and also write in the margins. Every week we send you a new paper annotated by the community.

Here is Fermat’s Library on John Nash on ideal money.

For the pointer I thank Ashok Rao.

Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, and Riedl have a new paper on this topic (pdf), here is the abstract:

Open collaboration systems like Wikipedia need to maintain a pool of volunteer contributors in order to remain relevant. Wikipedia was created through a tremendous number of contributions by millions of contributors. However, recent research has shown that the number of active contributors in Wikipedia has been declining steadily for years, and suggests that a sharp decline in the retention of newcomers is the cause. This paper presents data that show that several changes the Wikipedia community made to manage quality and consistency in the face of a massive growth in participation have ironically crippled the very growth they were designed to manage. Specifically, the restrictiveness of the encyclopedia’s primary quality control mechanism and the algorithmic tools used to reject contributions are implicated as key causes of decreased newcomer retention. Further, the community’s formal mechanisms for norm articulation are shown to have calcified against changes – especially changes proposed by newer editors.

This is an interesting paper, but I think it undervalues the hypothesis that potential contributors simply prefer to be in on things which are both new and cool.  Wikipedia, which is no longer new, cannot be so cool.  That is why Beethoven’s 5th does not top the pop charts, though if it were new it might.

For the pointer I thank David Siegel.

For best non-fiction book of the year, a late entry swoops in to take first place!  That’s right, I am going to select The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert, by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh.

This is an unusual book.  It is only 85 pp. of text and about half of it is aerial photos and maps.  It covers the history of the Negev desert, the Bedouin, Israeli policy toward the Bedouin, ecology, seed botany, and the roles of water policy and climate change, all in remarkably interesting and information-rich fashion, with a dose of Braudel and also Sebald in terms of method.

For one thing, it caused me to rethink what books as a whole should be.  This is one cool book.

To make it stranger yet, this book is Weizman’s response to Sheikh’s The Erasure Trilogy, which is structured as a tour of the ruins of the 1948 conflict.  That book is I believe from a Palestinian point of view, and described as a “visual poem.”  I just ordered it; note that Sheikh is the photographer for The Conflict Shoreline and thus listed as a co-author.

Some will read The Conflict Shoreline as “anti-Israeli” in parts, but that is not the main point of the book or my endorsement of it.  The book however does point out that Israeli policies toward the Bedouin often were prompted by a desire to remove large numbers of them from their previous Negev land and move them into the West Bank and Egypt.  I had not known “The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 70 times in the ongoing “Battle over the Negev””.  The book ends with a two-page evidentiary aerial photo of that village, taken during 1945; other photos of it date as far back as 1918.  This is all part of Weizman’s project of “reverse surveillance.”

It is a hard book to summarize, in part because it is so visual and so integrative, but here is one excerpt:

The Negev Desert is the largest and busiest training area for the Israeli Air Force and has one of the most cluttered airspaces in the world.  The airspace is partitioned into a complex stratigraphy of layers, airboxes, and corridors dedicated to different military platforms: from bomber jets through helicopters to drones.  This complex volume is an integral part of the architecture of the Negev.

And then it will move to a discussion of seed technology, or how Bedouin economic strategies have changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these various topics fit together.  Think of it also as a contribution to location theory and economic geography, but adding vertical space, manipulated topography, rainfall, and temperature to the relevant dimensions of the problem.

Too bad it costs $40.00.  Recommended, nonetheless.  Here is one review, here is another, the latter having especially good photos of the book’s photos.

Here is a good interview with Weizman, who among other things outlines his concept of Forensic Architecture.

Here is my earlier post on the best non-fiction books of 2015.  And here is an earlier post the best books under one hundred pages.

Weizmanbook

Todd, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

If you had the power to make civilization unlearn one technology or theory in use today, what would it be?

I’m not ready to say nuclear weapons, which so far have been a major net force for peace, at least until the next one goes off.

Music streaming (or is it the MP3?) doesn’t seem important enough, still I do not think it will improve creativity over the longer run.  In this sector I care more about the total quality of product than about maximizing the sum total of consumer plus producer surplus.

How about the Facebook technology which limits you to 5000 friends?  (just joking…)

Modern ketchup?

Land mines are a possible pick, but that wouldn’t help South Korea any.  Drones are another candidate, too early to tell.

In my rather strongly held view, most technologies are net improvements.

But I think I’ll go with cluster bombs.  Or poison gas.  The Kalashnikov?

How is that for a provocative, comment-inducing article title?  That’s a new piece in Intelligence by Noah Carl, the abstract is this:

It is well known that individuals with so-called liberal or leftist views are overrepresented in American academia. By bringing together data on American academics, the general population and a high-IQ population, the present study investigates how much of this overrepresentation can be explained by intelligence. It finds that intelligence can account for most of the disparity between academics and the general population on the issues of abortion, homosexuality and traditional gender roles. By contrast, it finds that intelligence cannot account for any of the disparity between academics and the general population on the issue of income inequality. But for methodological reasons, this finding is tentative. Furthermore, the paper finds that intelligence may account for less than half of the disparity on liberal versus conservative ideology, and much less than half the disparity on Democrat versus Republican identity. Following the analysis, eight alternative explanations for liberal and leftist overrepresentation are reviewed.

Do please note that the “intelligent” point of view need not be the correct one, it is simply the view held by individuals who measure as intelligent.

Most of all, modern America has a not-very-self-aware academic culture, which is far more insular than it likes to believe.  A good deal of what American academics believe springs from their culture, not from their intelligence per se.

For the pointer I thank Daniel B. Klein.

A handful of firms are offering employees free or subsidized tests for genetic markers associated with metabolism, weight gain and overeating, while companies such as Visa Inc., Slack Technologies Inc., Instacart Inc. recently began offering workers subsidized tests for genetic mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

The programs provide employees with potentially life-saving information and offer counseling and coaching to prevent health problems down the road, benefits managers say.

Screening for genetic markers linked to obesity is the latest front in companies’ war on workers’ weight woes.

Obesity-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes comprise a large share of overall health-care costs, estimated to run more than $12,000 a worker this year, according to a recent survey from Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health.

Employers are hoping to help bend the cost curve—and make their workers healthier—by more aggressively targeting obesity and coaxing workers to lose weight.

Fortunately, none of that information ever will be used against the interests of workers, nor will any worker face pressure, explicit or implicit, to submit to such a test…

The story is here, here is another path in.