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.

Bsketti is back! But I’ve forgotten how to blog. In fact I can barely type. Luckily, with my camera all I need to do is press the button and it gives me nice pictures.

First, this is where I live:


(To clarify, I don’t actually live on the hill like Moses. I live nearby! Not sure if Moses lived on a hill either, or if he just visited. Can’t have been easy hiking in those sandals in any case. Don’t see mountain goats wearing sandals, do you? I think that tells us something. Oh my God (sorry to blaspheme), I’ve just thought: both Moses and mountain goats have beards. What are the chances of that? Beards are the best.)

Anyway, here’s an action shot:


And this is how I get to work!


And this is the slightly sicky feeling I get when I consider leaving such a nice place and moving somewhere inferior:


It’s a cruel life, being all restless and stuff.

It is autumn, which means certain things will happen. Leaves will fall. Evenings will Draw In. Parents will lovingly allow their small children to dress up as malevolent spirits of dead people. And women’s fashion magazines across the world will run preppy fashion spreads inspired by the film Love Story.

If you have not seen Love Story and have no idea what I’m talking about, I can only imagine that you have never read a women’s magazine between the months of August and March. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen Love Story either. But I don’t need to – I’ve read so many derivative fashion stories that I feel like I’ve watched it seventeen times.

The point is this: there are sub-plots to the film about young love, class divide and tragic early death, but the main message is that Ali Macgraw wears unfortunate 1970s polo necks and woolly hats. A lot. And, at some point between meeting Ryan O’Neal on campus and, well, dying, she evidently finds time to run crunching through autumn leaves in some of the finest municipal parkery ever captured on the silver screen. Ryan gamely matches her step for step with striped college scarves and the like, and the result is a blueprint for Preppy Style which is aired by fashion editors every year like some dusty old school blazer brought out from the wardrobe every September:

According to Filmsite.org, one of the film’s most touching scenes is “the montage of the couple tossing snowballs at each other.” Jesus.

It’s frightening how the magazines never deviate. I have, in fact, seen one bit from Love Story, in which Ryan O’Neal was sporting some minky ice-hockey gear and trying to catch Ali’s eye with some daring puck-related moves. I’m not sure what she saw in him, actually, but then, she wasn’t well. Anyway, there are never any “How to dress like a porky male ice-hockey player” spreads in the magazines. It’s always, “How to look waifish in a punt with some young Etonian”. And who needs help with that?

I’m betting that none of the fashion editors have actually seen Love Story, and have all been copying the same feature published in Paris Vogue in 1981.

The annoying thing is that readers in the northern hemisphere really don’t need to be told to wear flared jeans, brown boots, warm coats and minging 1969-apres-ski-in-Gstaad knitwear when it’s October. It’s as natural as farting in the bath. What we do need help with is, for example, how to wear low-crotched trousers without looking like MC Hammer, how to wear the Folk-Gypsy-Luxe look without getting incarcerated by Italian police, and how to run away from rapists in Christian Louboutin shoes. By contrast, the preppy style is impossible to get wrong.

How extraordinary, then, to find in October’s issue of Germany’s Amica (“Das Fashion-Magazine”) that they have fluffed up the obligatory Love Story feature! How is that possible, you ask? Well, they score points for cable knits and some argyle sock action, but then they go completely off piste by putting the model in Russian fur hats and, even worse, sixties mini-dresses. Nein, nein, nein! Das ist nicht Preppy! Haven’t they READ the source material?

I’m afraid this is the nail in the coffin in my relationship with German women’s magazines. Try as they might, they never get it quite right. There’s always loads of horrid real fur, the shoes are grim, and the photography doesn’t show the clothes off well at all. In Amica, a model is pictured lounging on a furry white carpet in wrinkled beige tights and a rabbit-skin jerkin while caressing a lobster. That, I’m afraid, is beyond the pink. Adios, Amica!

When a newsreader is reaching the ‘And Finally’ part of his slot and begins a new story with “Levi Stubbs, the lead singer with the sixties soul group The Four Tops, …”, you somehow know the story is not going to end well for Mr Stubbs.

The same goes for “Robert Lantz, one of the most influential Hollywood agents of the 1950s…”, or “Isaac Hayes, the American soul singer who won an Oscar for scoring the 1970s film Shaft…”. The BBC World Service is not going to mention blaxpoitation movies unless there is a pretty deadly reason.

No, I’m afraid there is only one way these bulletins are going to end, and it is not going to be with the news that said celebrity has launched a new cruisewear fashion line.

It would be nice if, just for once, instead of finishing the line with “has died at the age of 72”, they could say, “Levi Stubbs, the lead singer with the sixties soul group The Four Tops, has released a new acid jazz album.”

Or, “Levi Stubbs, the lead singer with the soul sixties group The Four Tops, has converted to Islam.”

Or, “Levi Stubbs, the lead singer with the sixties soul group The Four Tops, has had a new Stannah StairLift installed in his Albuquerque mansion, where he lives as a virtual recluse with his three former band members and a butler from Azerbaijan.”

I look out of my window this morning and see a young man in my neighbours’ garden with a shotgun. He is inspecting the gun intently. It is shiny and conker brown. I hope he is not trying to work out which end the bullet comes out of. Then he takes up a killing stance, and stares down the barrel. Is he going to shoot one of the chickens that run about the garden? Or a dog. Please let him maim one of my neighbours’ intensely annoying dogs. Perhaps he is waiting for his family to emerge from the house, ready for church no doubt. They have cut him out of his inheritance, and he is going to blow them away.

No, he takes the gun away from his face and inspects it again. Fascinating. I note he has got a TopMan scarf tied in the city-boy way around his neck. This seems a bit incongruous with the general hunter-stroke-assassin vibe. Ah, here comes another male – his father? – and they drive away in what looks like a Toyota HardCore 4×4 Destructor. Perhaps they are going off to shoot things together. This is a huntin-shootin-fishin-killin kind of place.