You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2009.

Interesting piece on the Guardian today about the “true costs” (e.g. spread of carcinogens, human rights abuses) of must-have Christmas toys, a somewhat sheepish follow-up to its previous “dream toys list”.


The Sylvanian Families caravan (£45.99).  I’m not saying that the manufacture of this has hidden environmental costs. I just think it looks awesome. Although… is that top bunk bed entirely safe? I’m not sure that young rabbits should be sleeping 12 feet off the ground.  (Image from

I have been wondering for a while if prices could be adjusted to include social and environmental costs – basically, whether externalities could be internalised.  For example, when everything is taken into consideration, should organic food be cheaper, not more expensive, than mass-produced alternatives? Another example is the arrival of a new Tesco.  It may offer local shoppers cheaper prices, but how do these weigh up against the overall socio-economic costs that may filter down to the community from, say, the loss of small businesses?

I’m sure this has been discussed to death and maybe – probably – it is a ridiculous idea.  How would the data be gathered?  How would ephemeral costs like environmental losses be valued anyway (another big debate)?  But then, prices do already include subjective factors such as utility and scarcity.  Is it so different?

Yikes, I am probably embarrassingly myself hugely. But I’ll carry on. Let’s say that in this new pricing regimen, exciting fair-trade hemp jeans produced by village cooperatives in Romania cost $5.99, and the cheapest jeans stitched by the mercury-stained fingers of glue-sniffing orphans in China to be offered in WalMart cost $52.99.  What would be the effect on demand for said hempalicious trousers?  Would manufacturers flock to the sector and introduce more competitive practices that raise the economic and environmental cost?  Or would people pay extra for the WalMart jeans anyway because they can buy their terribly cheap organic food at the same time, or they hate shopping in earnest fair-trade shops, or perhaps because the higher price has given the WalMart jeans a certain must-have quality?

And how would you define social cost anyway? For example, I went to a talk where a man attempted to argue that forest resources in West Papua, Indonesia, were being “appropriated” from their rightful (traditional tribal) owners by harmful mining companies. And who wouldn’t have sympathy with locals who find their fishing waters polluted and traditional harvest lands taken over? But you could argue that the costs to that sector of society have benefited another sector – the Indonesians whose living standards have improved due to the rise in GDP achieved through timber exports.

So is this an idiotic idea, or what? And was it worth writing about just for the pleasure of visiting the Sylvanian Families website? And why can’t I stop asking questions?

Have just had one of those awesome cycle rides home at night when the sky is full of stars, the moon is shining on the Rhine, the ruined castle on the hill is all lit up and even the scary bit where there are no people and no streetlights and, now that I think about it, no road, isn’t all that scary.

You know, one of those cycle rides. And it is all thanks to my new bike!

Since deciding to leave my job, I have been practising fiscal prudence. My best effort to date has been getting to Bangkok airport for 45 baht (82 pence). Continuing in this vein, I went to the second-hand bike fair in Cologne yesterday with the hope of picking up a bargain to replace my last bike, which got stolen. Miraculously, and despite the best efforts of various dodgy gentlemen to sell me something that they had clearly just fished out of the canal, I found a really good, cheap bike, which has immediately become my favourite thing. It doesn’t need to be given a ridiculously affected name like Sir Walter or Brutus, its predecessors. It is simply… Pegasus.

For a start, it has 21 gears, thus allowing me to go super fast. It has neither a saddle covered with gaffer tape nor a pedal that sticks out at a 70 degree angle (both common motifs at said bike fair). And it is navy blue – one of the best colours in the whole world, if not the universe. Buying an object has made me very happy, which has made me rethink my entire position on modern market capitalism.

Strictly speaking, I should acknowledge that my thriftiness is partly undone by the fact that the Pegasus is not actually the only bike that I bought this week. Yes, OK, I bought another one first on Tuesday, but honestly, it is unrideable.

I had turned up at this social project place in north Bonn – an enormous shed with maybe 60 bikes outside and more indoors. “I’m looking for a bike, please,” I said. The man pointed to a modest looking silver number (since christened Slim Shady). “That one,” he said. “Um, thank you, is that the only bike you have for sale [in this GIANT SHED FULL OF BIKES]?” I asked (I didn’t actually say the bit in brackets). Yes, I was told; there was a waiting list otherwise. I took a hard, Prudent look at Slim. “It may not be perfect,” I told myself, “but we are in a new era of scrimpitude. Beggars can’t be choosers!”

So, after a brief spin in the car park (on the bike, I mean, not a whirling dervish moment), during which Slim Shady proved to be passable by going in a straight line and not falling apart, I bought it, feeling extremely pleased with myself in all things fiscal. As I cycled away, having parted with 150 smackers, I ignored the strange noise the gears were making. “Nice little bike, that,” I imagined my dad saying, much as he told me that there was nothing wrong with the Mini Metro I was about to take my driving test in when in fact the clutch had failed (I failed too).

But I was unable to delude myself for long. As I rode to the office, I couldn’t help but notice that the Shadester was so exuberantly sprung that the chief sensation was  one not of forward motion but of going up and down as if on a pogo stick. Even the pedals seemed to have suspension. What’s more, I realised with a sinking feeling that the bike was so small that I had to sit on it like a coachman hunched against the rain. I did manage to hitch up the saddle to penny farthing-like heights, which helped until it gradually slithered down and allowed me to be overtaken by old women on Lady Bikes. Truly, something that should never happen to anyone.

So, I know I should just accept that it is a shite bike (a shike?) and put up with it, but on Wednesday I got overtaken by another Lady Bike and I couldn’t feel my buttocks when I got home, so I decided I absolutely had to buy another one. Obviously I have a bit to learn about fiscal austerity. This week I will have to take Slim Shady back to the shed and hope they will award my idiocy with a refund.

Anyway, the reason for this evening’s outing on the peerless Pegasus was a talk at Bonn museum on Napoleon. As usual, hoi oligoi of Bonn were out in force. It was nice that people made an effort to dress up. One lady came as a pink sofa. Given that I was dressed in neither a double-breasted blazer nor a pashmina and that I have all my own teeth I’m surprised they let me in, but as soon as I sat down I aggressively got out my notebook With Intent, and no doubt I was quickly recognized as a serious Napoleonic scholar (albeit one dressed as a lumberjack).


Sadly, I am not able to parlay the main points of this evening’s talk, because (1) the woman was speaking in German, and (2) the woman was speaking in German with an Austrian accent. This made her almost entirely incomprehensible, to me at least. Certainly the audience lapped her up (not literally; she wasn’t milk, and they were not cats). I think she made a joke about Haydn at one point, which went down very well. But all I can say about events is that I’m fairly sure the French besieged Vienna in 1809. I think they threatened to stay until Beethoven had finished the Eroica Symphony. Napoleon was evidently involved. Soldiers died, as is their wont. Then the siege ended and everyone ate Viener Schnitzel and Viennese Whirls and there was a peace treaty, after which Napoleon started dancing with the Burgermeister in the street and that’s how the waltz was invented. Hurrah!

I was excited by Monday’s news that Elinor Ostrom has won the Nobel economics prize,* and not just because of the frightening peasant sweater she is wearing in the only photograph that appears to have been circulated to the press.

I was also excited because, as it happens, for weeks I have been trying to read some of her work. I feel that this almost qualifies me as a close personal friend. If we met, I’m sure that I would need only to say, “Hi Professor Ostrom, loved your article on forest governance!”, and she would immediately invite me into her inner circle and ask me to join them in getting high and debating the finer points of multi-variate research methods.**

Ostrom’s specialism, the management of common pool resources, is one of the key areas in environmental studies, so I thought I should find out about it. More importantly, I know that she questions Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” theory. And ever since the husband of a friend, who works for a central bank, told me that Hardin’s theory is a cornerstone of modern economics, I have wanted to prove him wrong (deciding not to let the fact that this man has a PhD in economics sway me from my mission).

Tragedy in Utah
In 1968, Hardin published an article in Science in which he evoked an old scenario about people grazing cattle on a piece of commons land. This land can support a certain number of cows without the grass being eaten away. It’s a sustainable system – assuming that each herdsman doesn’t sneakily add another cow. If he does, he can earn a bit more money. And the gains to him from doing that are greater than the collective losses that everyone will feel as a result of the land having to be shared by a bigger group of cattle.

So, said Hardin, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd”. What a short-sighted idiot, you might think! Well, idiot or not, each herdsman is compelled to maximize his yield from the same piece of land, so they all put too many cows on it, the commons becomes overgrazed – and that, says Hardin, is the tragedy of the commons (thanks to Gregory for introducing me to this theory!).

(The obvious answer is to build a large out-of-town Tesco on the site, which would not only prevent overgrazing but also provide the herdsman with a range of beef or soya-protein products at affordable prices.)

These days, most of the work on common pool resources has focused on the management of leisure centre swimming pools fisheries or forests. Are fishermen and forest dwellers driven to overexploit their resources, just like Hardin’s herdsmen? And if so, can it really be explained by greed and mistrust?

The importance of Ostrom’s many years of work, I understand, has been to find cases where people have been able to manage resources sustainably, and to identify the conditions necessary for that to happen. “Why did other economists miss this part of the picture?” asks Elizabeth Eaves in Forbes. ” ‘Economists didn’t pay attention to ethnography,’ [economist Nancy] Folbre says. ‘Why go out in the field when you have a nice theory?’ ”.

Dead goats
The award is being seen as quite timely in an age of collapsed fish stocks, deforestation and all that. This issue is also relevant to grazing and pastoralism, as in the original example used by Hardin. A few weeks ago the Observer ran a piece about nomadic herders in north Kenya who are being driven into settled camps by drought and death of their livestock: “What is happening is the slow death of an existence, with families attempting to cling stubbornly to a land where acacia scrub has been scorched to a spectral gray.”


The Sunday Nation says, “The year 2009 will be as transformative for Kenya’s rangelands as the Dust Bowl was for the American prairies in the 1930s.” (Picture by Roger Job)

I found the article unusually good because the journalist, Peter Beaumont, mentioned a change in global weather patterns and political marginalisation as factors. Very often, the plight of nomads like this is explained by “poor livestock management” and overpopulation, placing the blame at their own feet.

What Ostrom and others have done is to debunk this rather simplistic explanation. In fact, one of the tasks of the wider field of political ecology is to illuminate how quite well managed systems can be disturbed by outside factors such as aggressive policies to encourage nomadic herders to settle, or the granting of logging concessions. If we want to be cynical about it, some groups are quite happy for the theory that people cannot manage by themselves to become the accepted belief, because it then provides a rationale for privatisation, forced clearance of land and so on.

Dead wood
Although working for the UN has made me much more pragmatic than I used to be, I still have a tendency to embrace counter-theories like this without checking the facts. I want Hardin, game theory and their assumptions about human nature to be wrong, therefore I automatically believe anyone who says that they are. In the same way, I want to believe that the reason for pastoralists’ problems is not that they can’t manage the resources for themselves but that some nefarious outside force is trying to change them. I know this is Bad Science, so I set myself the challenge of doing some reading and deciding for myself.

But there’s one big problem, and it feels a bit rude to say this about a Nobel laureate: I find Ostrom’s work really boring. It’s all about systems and regimes and causal models, and whenever I try to read about it, my brain is forced into its default setting of thinking about which is the best biscuit in the world.*** To wit, let us look at some extracts from the Ostrom-edited book The Drama of the Commons:




(Pictures added to prevent my computer rejecting the photos as image files.)

I am sure that the work of Ostrom et al isn’t boring if you understand the context. The problem is that I am still trying to get my yellow belt in this stuff and she is at least a Fifth Dan. But that doesn’t help the fact that for now, I find the material somewhat inaccessible. Can someone commission a Ladybird version?

* Together with Oliver Williamson.
** This is just a scenario; I am no means implying that Elinor Ostrom is a stoner.
*** My once entrenched feelings on this subject have recently been rocked by the discovery of the Oreo.

Spent a fruitless ten minutes yesterday trying to take a picture of a swan, which was quite unmoved by my presence:


It reminded me of a welder I had seen earlier:

(Note the ubiquitous Haribo iconography)

Anyway, at last I got my shot, nature watchers!


Exciting news from Stockholm: no, I haven’t been given the key to the city to honour my contribution to Scandinophilia – Elinor Ostrom has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics!

Sadly I have no time at the moment to comment on this further. But it’s unCommonsly good news!

For now, I just have time to upload my latest photographic Meisterwerks, fresh from the dark room. I have been walking through the park in the mornings in the absence of Brutus, my bike, which carelessly let itself get stolen a few weeks back despite looking particularly intimidating and hulk-like. Anyway, every cloud has a silver lining, cause I’ve been able to commune with nature and take some more fuzzy and underexposed shots (my camera appears to be permanently set to Blur) on the way to work:



Green trees



Numchuk! Sorry, tuk-tuk!

Now get ready for an action shot:


I don’t really understand the concept of wild pigs. They’re like feral children who get all shaggy haired and go without washing. They probably aren’t even able to say “Oink” because they were too busy truffling to be taught the building blocks of grammar. I bet if you took one home to the farm and washed it in the trough you’d find that it’s pink underneath, a bit like how polar bears have got black skin. Anyway, I just don’t think pigs belong in forests. It’s like finding a bactrian camel in Dorothy Perkins. Only a camel hasn’t got foot-long tusks that can MAUL YOU TO DEATH.

My first night back from Bangkok, I find myself in a German village hall listening to three musicians from County Clare:

Music like


The man playing the pipes (one Blackie O’Connell) was the best. You’ll have noticed that he is playing the uillean pipes, of course. My friend Brigitte said he looked “like a pirate” and couldn’t understand a word he said. Fair enough; he was from Doolin. The accordion player was also Quite Good, although I must admit that I heard echoes of the Bavarian Bierhall in his music. As far as I could gather, every song he played was an old song written by the second best accordion player that’s ever lived in County Clare about the best accordion player that’s ever lived in County Clare.

They did one jig/reel/thing together that they learned from an old man in a pub in a remote village near Galway (yes I know that’s not in County Clare). Mr Accordion said you could tell the music was old because it had a lonely sound to it, on account of the village being so isolated. I quite like the idea that you can hear what a place was like from the music written there.

Anyway, very nice it was too, like. The moment they stopped playing triggered some kind of Pavlovian response for everyone to go for a cigarette outside. Even though it was raining. And they could have smoked inside. Some of them didn’t even have cigarettes, they just stood there uselessly twitching their fingers. I suppose they wanted to recreate that West Country Ireland smoking ban spirit. Ah, pubs. I went in one, once.


In other news, I saw a documentary the other day about three young storm chasers in Tornado Alley. The driver had the cool job of, well, driving the car, straight into the path of torrential rain, lightning and zero visibility. The guy sitting next to him hacked into radar and GPS data on a laptop while geekily ejaculating things like, “There’s a giant tornado forming right on top of us! Yeah! Wooh! That’s what I’m talking about!”

And then they would suddenly stop the car and make the stooge sitting in the back seat get out in the middle of the storm and catch hail stones the size of tennis balls. It made me laugh because he clearly nearly died every time he did it, but they had only just got around to sorting him out with elbow pads or some other form of insufficient protection. They said they were paid to collect hail stones “by an airline company”, but I’m fairly sure they were just getting back at this chump for scoring higher than them in a meteorology exam in grad school. Hmm – macho geeks. I think they are possibly the most dangerous men in the world.

Well, the good news is that I’ve found either a wormhole to a parallel universe, or God:


If you are not experienced in the world of metaphysical enquiry, let me give you a visual prompt:


This, of course, is marvellous news. I am keen to press ahead and publish, but in the spirit of science I have not yet ruled out a third possibility: that I have discovered a direct logistics channel for end-consumer delivery of Skittles:


Given that Skittles do not appear to be available to buy in shops in Bangkok (whose skyline is shown at the bottom of the image), however, I rate the likelihood of this option at 10 to the power 7,650,350 against.

After my exciting Misty Ferry shot, I bring you the latest release from my occasional series of Boats You Can Get To Work By:


Whoosh! This is a water taxi quite literally ferrying people to work. I am in Bangkok, where, judging by the traffic jams, a not inconsiderable number of people need to get to work on a near daily basis. Unless they are all going to the park to hunt monitor lizards:

A companion

(This may well be my Best Ever wildlife photograph.)

In the few spare moments when I’m not being chased by (a) reptiles or (b) taxis, I have taken some time to appreciate roofs. Here is a red one:


In this context, here are some more roofs, contextualised in an urban context:

A storm coming in

Of course, my real work here is to edit important documents join as many Thai municipal libraries as possible. I suspect that, administratively speaking, it may actually be easier for a Bonn citizen to join a library in Bangkok than in Bonn. Perhaps I am just feeling bitter after my recent contretemps with der Bonner Stadtbibliothek, in which I was required to transfer monies to the city hall treasury office for a questionable “late book return” offence. But that’s a story for another day.