Thursday, August 25, 2005

Imperial empiricals

A feature by Philip Ball in the Guardian on ecologist Peter Turchin's theory of cliodynamics, a mathematical model of history:

Turchin believes that history can indeed be a science, with laws as inexorable as the law of gravity. He claims to have found the general mechanisms that cause empires to wax and wane - laws as true today as they were during the Roman or Ottoman Empires. According to this view, the world order is in a state of perpetual change and the global powers today will inevitably be replaced in the coming centuries.
For example, Turchin argues that the fluctuations in population of pre-industrial societies can be linked to periods of political instability and civil war. His theory shows how population growth caused by increased prosperity can itself trigger such social instability, thus sowing the seeds of its own decline. This, says Turchin, is how civilisations and empires collapse.

Fascinating stuff, if only for giving a new statistical gloss to some old ideas of cyclic or mechanical history, but I suspect cliodynamics will remain a reductionist oddity, much like the other areas of 'social physics' explored by Ball in his book Critical Mass. Still, it's nice to see that in this new article, Ball finally gives credit to that notable fictional precedent for the field, the psychohistory of Asimov's Foundation novels.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

Baying for broadband

Interesting piece by Martin Wainwright in the Guardian on the revival of the Yorkshire coastal village of Robin Hood's Bay (or, rather, its avoidance of the tourism trap). The credit is given to broadband internet allowing home working, although it's rather annoying to see the village's renewed economic vitality defined primarily in its ability to attract downsizing professionals from Leeds and London.

In Bay, they set up a co-operative provider to bring broadband to the village. Here in Halifax, we get the BT ADSL service (a perfectly satisfactory service so far, and just upgraded to 2Mbps), but down in the valley, the good folk of Hebden Bridge also set up a pioneering broadband co-operative, Calder Connect Cooperative. That's helping support the thriving freelance community there, though again things seem largely driven by the offcumdens.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

New features

A few new additions to the main 2ubh site:

In features, a link to a Nature technology feature first published in April. This is, I think, the fourth in-depth tech feature I've written for them - this time on protein purification technology, an area being driven by the increasing demand for proteomic research by the pharma industry.
Upcoming features to watch out for include a review of the UK Midlands buyouts market for Real Deals, and a critical look at the Regional Venture Capital Funds for Corporate Financier. I've also put up an earlier article on the latter, from Yorkshire Business Insider in summer 2003.

In reviews, a couple of recent short book reviews published in the Fortean Times. Arthur I Miller's 'Empire of the Stars' is recommended, Jenny Randles' 'Breaking the Time Barrier' rather less so.
Appearing soon in FT is my review of the two new biographies of astronomer and author Fred Hoyle. I'm also working on reviews of the much-hyped 'Freakonomics', and John Gribbins' new tome on the founding of the Royal Society.


Hub trouble

Recent research from Luis Amaral's team at Northwestern University in the US, given new relevance by the strike by ground staff working for British Airways. Cancelled flights at Heathrow have caused delays at airports across the world, a ripple effect exacerbated by the industry's reliance on hubs in a far from ideal network:

The worldwide air transportation network is responsible for the mobility of millions of people every day. Almost 700 million passengers fly each year, maintaining the air transportation system ever so close to the brink of failure. For example, US and foreign airlines schedule about 2,700 daily flights in and out of O'Hare alone, more than 10% of the total commercial flights in the continental US, and more than the airport could handle even during a perfect "blue-sky" day. Low clouds, for example, can lower landing rates at O'Hare from 100 an hour to just 72 an hour, resulting in delays and flight cancellations across the country. The failures and inefficiencies of the air transportation system have large economic costs; flight delays cost European countries 150 to 200 billion Euro in 1999 alone.
These staggering numbers prompt several questions: What has led the system this close to the brink of failure? Why haven't planners designed a better system? In order to answer these questions, it is crucial to characterize the structure of the world-wide air transportation network and the mechanisms responsible for its evolution. This problem is, however, far from simple. The structure of the air transportation network is mostly determined by the concurrent actions of airline companies – both private and national – that try, in principle, to maximize their immediate profit. However, the structure of the network is also the outcome of numerous historical "accidents" arising from geographical, political, and economic factors.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Ten useful lessons

A comment piece in the Observer from John Llewellyn, chief economist at Lehman Brothers, summing up the 10 most important things he's learnt in 35 years as a professional economist. Not all seem that surprising, except perhaps to the overly dogmatised economist. In short:
1. Economic events seldom produce just one consequence.
2. Good economic policies do not guarantee good economic performanc, but bad economic policies inevitably result in bad performance.
3. Structural, not demand-side, policies most influence economic performance over the long term.
4. People respond powerfully to economic incentives, even without realising it.
5. Economic and social policies have to be considered as a whole.
6. Competition is one of the most powerful forces for finding more efficient ways of doing things; it also makes companies' lives more demanding.
7. History seldom, if ever, repeats itself precisely.
8. Complicated economic policies whose rationale is hard to explain usually fail.
9. Some of the biggest, and most important, economic issues remain unresolved.
10. Perhaps most importantly - just because professional economists don't always have a confident answer, it does not follow that all proffered solutions have equal validity.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The world of JG Ballard

Simon Sellars of Sleepy Brain Magazine has launched a new blog on The world of JG Ballard, featuring news about and new writings from the man himself, as well as news and oddments relating to his preoccupations - suburban dystopia, psychopathology, technology, architecture, media, the future. Simon's asked me to contribute, which I will.

I've also contributed some photos to the upcoming book of interviews with Ballard, to be published soon by Re/search Publications of San Francisco. I submitted a couple of dozen shots by request, so don't know exactly what's being used, but this one may well be among them. More on that once I get my copies.

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