The unbelievable, incomprehensible, off-the-charts stupidity of imprisoning scientists for being wrong

Did this really just happen?

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter. Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

That is so obviously, totally and unbelievably stupid that I am for once lost for words. So I shall content myself with linking (again) to the literature on what makes for high-reliability organisations. Over to Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe in their classic book on the subject, Managing the Unexpected :

The best high reliability organisations increase their knowledge base by encouraging and rewarding error reporting, even going so far as to reward those who have committed them … researchers Martin Laundau and Donald Chisholm provide [the example of] a seaman on the nuclear carrier Carl Vinson who reported the loss of a tool on the deck. All aircraft aloft were redirected to land bases until the tool was found, and the seaman was commended for his action – recognizing a potential danger – the next day at a formal ceremony.

That is how you create a transparent organisational culture that displays what Weick and Sutcliffe call ”a preoccupation with failure”, that recognises that uncertainty and accidents are inherent parts of the real world, and that aims to learn from them when they happen.

If on the other hand your reaction to uncertainty and accidents is instead to imprison people for them, then you’re not only an idiot; you’re also contributing towards more of both. Judge Marco Billi, ladies and gentlemen. What an imbecile.

It’s the apocalypse! Bring your own lunch…

Here is a tempting invite from the UN Department of Public Information…

The Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

is pleased to invite you to


“The Mayan Cosmovision: Is 2012 the end of the world?”


Wednesday, 24 October


1:30 pm


Room S-2726, 27th floor, Secretariat Building, UN Headquarters


After offering their blessings for the new offices of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Mayan Elders of the K’iche’ Mayoral of Santo Tomas de Chichicastenango, Guatemala (Maya-Quiche Empire), will share their message with the UN community.


According to the Maya, all aspects of life are governed by the movement of the heavens. Thousands of years ago, Mayan astronomers foresaw in 2012 a unique alignment of the cosmos which occurs only once every 64,000 years. The Maya identified this new cycle as a monumental transition and an opportunity to realign priorities based on the principles of love, gratitude, care and respect for both humanity and our environment.


Please bring your own lunch!

Ending poverty – can it be done?

Global Dashboard, November 2011:

But let’s go back to the poverty MDG. In 1990, there were 1.8 billion poor people (in a world of 5.3bn people). If the IMF/Bank projections pan out, by 2015, there’ll be 882.7m poor people left (in a world of 7.3bn). That represents real progress in both relative and absolute terms.

Here’s a thought. In the debate about what should succeed the MDGs, one obvious option is simply to extend the current set of goals and focus harder on the challenges facing the 15% of the world’s population that will still be below the poverty line in 2015.

If poverty does indeed fall by a billion between 1990 and 2015, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t fall as fast over the next fifteen years, even as the global population grows by another billion. In other words, having halved absolute poverty, leaders could commit to abolishing it by 2030.

DFID’s most senior official, October 2012:

When they were first proposed in the 1990s, the MDGs were widely thought too ambitious and aspirational to be taken seriously. The pundits thought that halving the proportion of people living under a dollar a day, sending every child to school, reducing under-5 mortality by two thirds and maternal mortality by three quarters, all by 2015, was pie in the sky.

As we now know, the sceptics have been confounded…

So when my Prime Minister said in New York last month that the international community should aim to abolish extreme poverty within this generation, our generation, these were not just aspirational words. Abolishing extreme poverty within our lifetimes is absolutely within our grasp.

Three questions for development organisations now: (i) What exactly  have they contributed to poverty reduction or would change have been as rapid without them? (ii) What is their theory of change for helping the poorest people in the world’s toughest operating environments? (iii) How does that theory of change need to evolve given new realities (for example, that in many countries, we will have the name and address of every poor family)?

How much humiliation can Spain cope with?

The FT’s Gillian Tett reports today on a conference presentation given by historical sociologist Dennis Smith, who’s been working on the question of how humiliation operates at the cultural / collective psychological level – and what this means for the Eurozone.

The whole article‘s worth reading, but here are a couple of highlights. First, on how humiliation works:

Psychologists believe the process of “humiliation” has specific attributes, when it arises in people. Unlike shame, humiliation is not a phenomenon which is internally driven, that is, something that a person feels when they transgress a moral norm. Instead, the hallmark of humiliation is that it is done by somebody to someone else.

Typically, it occurs in three steps: first there is a loss of autonomy, or control; then there is a demotion of status; and last, a partial or complete exclusion from the group. This three-step process usually triggers short-term coping mechanisms, such as flight, rebellion or disassociation. There are longer-term responses also, most notably “acceptance” – via “escape” or “conciliation”, to use the jargon – or “challenge” – via “revenge” and “resistance”. Or, more usually, individuals react with a blend of those responses.

So what does that mean for European politics? Well, Tett continues, the Eurozone’s periphery countries have indeed experienced “a loss of control, a demotion in relative status and exclusion from decision making processes (if not the actual euro, or not yet)” – and it’s interesting to observe how different European countries have used different coping strategies:

National stereotypes are, of course controversial and dangerous. But Prof Smith believes, for example, that Ireland already has extensive cultural coping mechanisms to deal with humiliation, having lived with British dominance in decades past. This underdog habit was briefly interrupted by the credit boom, but too briefly to let the Irish forget those habits. Thus they have responded to the latest humiliation with escape (ie emigration), pragmatic conciliation (reform) and defiant compliance (laced with humour).“This tactic parades the supposedly demeaning identity as a kind of banner, with amusement or contempt, showing that carrying this label is quite bearable,” says Prof Smith. For example, he says, Irish fans about to fly off to the European football championship in June 2012 displayed an Irish flag with the words: “Angela Merkel Thinks We’re At Work”.

However, Greece has historically been marked by a high level of national pride. “During 25 years of prosperity, many Greek citizens had been rescued by the expansion of the public sector . . . they had buried the painful past in forgetfulness and become used to the more comfortable present (now the recent past),” Prof Smith argues. Thus, the current humiliation, and squeeze on the public sector, has been a profound shock. Instead of pragmatic conciliation, “a desire for revenge is a much more prominent response than in Ireland”, he says, noting that “politicians are physically attacked in the streets. Major public buildings are set on fire. German politicians are caricatured as Nazis in the press . . . the radical right and the radical left are both resurgent.”

Prof Smith’s research has not attempted to place Spain on the coach. But I suspect the nation is nearer to Greece in its instincts than Ireland; humiliation is not something Spain has had much experience of “coping” with in the past. Whether the Spanish agree with this assessment or not, the key issue is this: if Angela Merkel or the other strong eurozone leaders want to forge a workable solution to the crisis, they need to start thinking harder about that “H” word. Otherwise, the national psychologies could yet turn more pathogical.

Intelligent Agents or How to Stop Consumers Getting Screwed

Seemingly inadvertently yesterday, David Cameron made a commitment to legislation that would force utilities to ensure their customers were always on the cheapest tariff for their energy supplies.

The proposal has been met with some derision and now seems to be unravelling, but it’s problematic principally because it does not go nearly far enough.

In this, as in many markets, the odds are stacked against the consumer. Tariffs have proliferated, becoming increasingly difficult to compare, making informed decisions almost impossible. Few people really understand what they’re buying.

This is not simply a problem for the ill-educated. As I pointed out in a paper for the Long Finance initiative, MBA students prove incapable of determining which mortgage offers them a better deal, even when dealing with fewer parameters than are offered to British borrowers.

A massive information asymmetry is at work. Companies understand their customers’ cognitive biases. They crunch the likely impact of millions of buying decisions. And they frame choices in ways that turn what should be plain-vanilla commodities into much more profitable branded products.

There is only one answer to this: redesign markets from the consumers’ point of view. There are two main tasks.

First: enable the creation of technologies that level the playing field for consumers.

If you venture into a complex market without representation, you are asking to be fleeced. Traditional agents (people), however, are expensive, and their role as honest brokers has often been eroded when they are paid by the seller, not the buyer.

Technology can solve this problem. It is now a very simple task to design an intelligent agent that scours the market  on behalf of a consumer, inviting bids and accepting them, based on criteria that its master has specified.

Here’s how it might work in the utility market.

Continue reading

Freudian tweet of the day

An intriguing tweet from EU development commissioner Andris Piebalgs:

What could he possibly have said?

Interesting factoids on employment and development

…courtesy of the World Bank’s 2013 World Development Report (which is on jobs, and definitely worth a read):

  • 1.6 billion people work for a wage or salary, compared to 1.5 billion in farming or self-employment
  • The average Mexican firm will grow to employ twice as many people over 35 years; in the US, it’s 10 times as many over the same period
  • 21 million people are victims of forced labour
  • Women’s labour force participation is 77% in Vietnam, but only 28% in Pakistan
  • 600 million new jobs are needed over the next 15 years just to keep current global unemployment rates [6%, according to the ILO] at its current level
  • The global total of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) is 621 million
  • The number of international migrants as a share of world population is 3% – but in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, the foreign-born population is 60%
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