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Author: Briggs

December 3, 2008 | 21 Comments

An international court to prevent climate change. Now that is a good idea.

Stephen Hockman QC—which, if you read Rumpole, you know means queer customer—is a European (I can’t say Englishman, because an Englishman would not voluntarily cede his country’s sovereignty to a foreign body) who is proposing to create an International Court of Environmental Justice, whose purpose will be to “punish states that fail to protect wildlife and prevent climate change.”

Isn’t that nice?

Besides providing make-work employment for obscure politicians, “[T]he court would also fine countries or companies that fail to protect endangered species or degrade the natural environment and enforce the ‘right to a healthy environment’.”

It would first create this new “right to a healthy environment and provide a higher body for individuals or non-governmental organisations to protest against an environmental injustice.”

Both Gordon Brown and Judi Dench have come out in favor of this new governing body, so we can guess it’s only a matter of time before it is started.

You might suppose that I, being a self-named climate inactivist and advocate of limited government, would be against this development, but except for one caveat, I am not. Here’s why.

First the caveat. It is true that part of the motivation behind Hockman’s storm-of-the-brain is the child-like idea that anything bad that happens is some humans’ or group of humans’ fault, and that this group should be caught and punished or fined, preferably fined, especially if they are rich.

So, for example, if you had planned an outing expecting sunshine and instead found rain, this rain must be due to evil forces. It is, after all, your right to a healthy environment, and what could be more unhealthy than to be caught out in the rain? Who, therefore, is to blame? Perhaps a corporation does business nearby. Thus, the foul weather must be its fault, because corporations have money, and with money comes temptation and wrongful deeds. Quat erat demonstrandum.

This line of “reasoning” should not come as a shock because we expect nothing less than exactly this form of simple greed from our lawyers, and experience has taught us that its effects can be mitigated or countered by arraying a different set of lawyers against the first, the second group’s greed being sated with fat salaries. The result is something like an equilibrium.

Plus, the feeling that a corporate—or perhaps incorporate—body is responsible for our ills has always been with humanity, so it should come as no surprise that lawyers and politicians are as susceptible to this superstition as ordinary civilians. The rule then, the rule now, the rule will always be somebody must be blamed! We just have to deal with this.

Keeping this caveat in mind, this is why I like creating the new court. In order to punish a group for creating an “unhealthy environment”, a healthy environment must be defined. And in order to “prevent” climate change, climate itself must finally be explicitly defined. The idea of what it means to “change” must also be fully specified right down to the dotted “i”s and crossed “t”s so beloved of bureaucrats.

Isn’t that wonderful? Don’t you see the beauty of this?

Think of it. Right now, believe it or not, there is no legal definition of climate. There isn’t even a “scientific” one. That is, there is no consensus on exactly what climate is. Nobody—and I mean no body—has ever sat down and spelled out exactly, precisely what climate is, what it means for a climate to change, and what an ideal, healthy climate specifically entails.

Oh, sure, there are some vague notions and rules of thumb. For example, climatologists gather data and average it and call the result climate. But what data? From whence is it gathered? What limits? Hourly observations? Daily, monthly, yearly? For how long? What variables should be tracked? Just temperature? Precipitation? Vorticity? Everybody already knows that the idea of a “global mean temperature” is silly and next to useless. Nobody, for example, lives in a “global”. People live in places which have actual hour-by-hour temperatures. Who cares what a “global mean” is, anyway? People deal with actual values not global means.

And what exactly is a “healthy environment”? If you were mad about olives and believed that people should eat little else, then it would be rational to plant more olive trees. Warmer temperatures in some locales where there are now no olive groves, say Michigan, would make it more likely for those trees to grow and flourish, therefore guaranteeing a healthy citizenry and a thicker wallet for you. However, the farmers who grow cherry trees there now would not welcome warmer weather. We have conflict!

I do better in hot, humid weather (I look good in and prefer to wear linen). You might like to and thrive by shoveling snow. We cannot live together, and what is healthy for you is not for me. Nor are all types of weather equally good for all people, or plants, or animals.

If one year sees slightly less rainfall than average (and what is average?), who is to blame? And what is “slightly less”? Because this year has seen slightly less rainfall, has the climate officially changed? My neighbor has seen slightly higher rainfall. Has the climate changed for both of us? Exactly how long does the change have to last for it to become an official change?

Finally, everybody agrees that some change is “natural” and some due to those with money. But how much from each source? I mean, precisely how much. Are Chinese factories causing the sun to shine on Christmas day? Is German manufacturing causing an increase in potato production in Poland by increasing warmth and the nutrient CO2? That would be bad, because more potatoes on the market lower their price, making the production of vodka cheaper, thus increasing drunkenness, liver disease and pancreatic cancer rates.

Legally defining all of these terms to the satisfaction of politicians, actresses, activists, rich people, and citizens will eliminate an enormous amount of useless bickering and debate about climate change that now floods over us. It will also be a next to impossible task, and so it will allow busybodies to be busy bodies for only a small price to the rest of us. This will allow us to forget about “climate change” because we can trust that this new expert body is dealing with it.

It is true that this International Court’s will, in effect, create new forms of taxation, and that it will spend most or all of its time spending the money it has coerced on “studies” and lunches and on creating employment for more creatures like themselves. But like I said above, occasional manias seem to be the natural course of human events from time to time, and we just have to deal with them in the best way we can. And many of the larger excesses of this group will be able to be mitigated by the traditional means. Plus there is some utility in gathering all of the kind of people who go for this kind of activity in one place, where they may more easily be watched and, if finally necessary, dealt with.

Update: see Monday, 8 December’s post on this topic, too.

| 6 Comments

Breaking the Law of Averages on Amazon

Breaking the Law of Averages

The book is now fully available at Amazon, and should be available in other outlets already or soon.

It goes without saying that the book is the perfect Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid-Al-Adha, New Year’s, Oshogatsu, Holi, Bodhi Day, Birthday, or Anniversary gift. But I’ll say it anyway: your loved-ones will despise you if you don’t buy them a copy.

Now, many people are busy this time of year, but will certainly want to include a review of the book on Amazon’s review page. With that in mind, and me being the helpful and generous soul that I am, I have included a couple of reviews that you can cut and paste right into the form, thus saving you scads of time.

A book so unbelievably beautiful that I wept when I first beheld it.

The word genius is certainly overused, so I see no harm in using it once again for this marvelous book

It would be a complete and utter moral failure not to own a copy of this lasting work.

If there is anybody left who wants a signed copy, there are two ways to get one: (1) Send an email with SIGNED COPY as a subject heading to matt@wmbriggs.com (cost is US$32); (2) Buy a copy on, say, Amazon, and bring it to Manhattan for me to sign. I am easy to find; I wear a brown fedora (in the fall/winter), am tall, and have a distinct statistical presence. You can’t miss me.

December 1, 2008 | 20 Comments

The Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hour genius certificate

The best explanation for Malcom Gladwell’s (Blink, Tipping Point) success is provided by the Annals of Improbable Research in its Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

The editors of that esteemed journal posit that “The public loves to see and applaud scientists who have luxuriant flowing hair.” The club originated after researchers wondered after Stephen Pinker’s meteoric rise in scientific circles, whose hair had “long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study.”

Everybody can immediately bring to mind that greatest of all 20th century scientists, Einstein, whose hair was wildly out of control, a condition which we thus associate with genius. Compare, for example, the locks of Pinker and Gladwell.

Stephen Pinker Malcom Gladwell

The soundness of the theory is obvious.

Gladwell, who has ridiculously poofy hair, is out with another book, this one statistical in name: Outliers: The Story of Success. I often say there are no such things as outliers; and I say it again here. Outliers are data points that are too extreme to fit your preconceptions. Here, outliers are people who do exceptionally well at certain tasks.

Anyway, one of the main—shocking!—findings of Gladwell’s book is that—wait for it—genius takes hard work! Some people might be gifted but they still need a healthy dose of honest toil before they find their fame. After thinking about this deep truth, I have come up with a new joke, which I preview for you today. Tourist: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Me: “Practice!” Ha ha ha! Feel free to pass it along.

No, I dishonor Gladwell. His real contribution comes in putting a number to the time required to reach genius level, a task which nobody thought to attempt before. It’s 10,000 hours. It works like this. Pick an area in which you would like to excel, like ballet. Then practice for 10,000 hours, after which you will be a genius.

Business people love Gladwell because of his obvious talent for finding deep but elusive truths (like the value of hard work) and phrasing the truths in ways simple to understand. Thus, my prediction is that it won’t be long before companies begin issuing genius certificates for those employees who have amassed the requisite time in areas such as “horizontal segmentation analysis.” Since earning 10,000 hours only requires about five years of normal work, we’ll soon be flooded with “geniuses”, or with people who claim that they are.

This won’t be the first time we see such eccentric behavior from business people. We currently have a healthy surplus of “Six Sigma Black Belts” (a term supposing proficiency with a type of statistical analysis), and hip Apple (Computers) has a ready supply of folks to be “Genius Bar” hosts and hostesses (a nicely hollow—but hip—phrase).

If you want to know more about the book, you can visit Gladwell’s own page, where he asks himself a bunch of questions and then answers them as if he is suspicious of his questioner. His announces that the main goal of this book is “to make us think about the world a little differently.”

Deep.

(To anticipate a criticism: yes, I am jealous. I wish I got one-tenth of what Gladwell gets for a speech. And, yes, Gladwell also goes on and on about what can be termed “luck”, the component necessary to accompany practice and talent to ensure success.)