A contrarian’s provocative take on recycling

February 22, 2015

Annually we produce four billion tonnes of rubbish in the world. This factoid was quoted on the BBC World Service’s In The Balance podcast. The programme about recycling also featured a woman who is out to change all this. Lauren Singer, whose output of rubbish for the last two years would fit into an oversized jam jar. How was she able to accomplish such a feat?

It all began when Singer noticed a fellow Environmental Studies student bringing lunch to class every week with a single-use plastic bag, a disposable water bottle, and plastic takeout container. Seeing the irony of this behaviour, from someone supposed to be studying how to save the planet, Singer was sparked into action. She started to buy her clothes exclusively from second-hand outlets. She then set about making all of her own personal care and cleaning products. She decided to live a minimalist lifestyle, giving away all but her most essential possessions. She now runs a blog called www.trashisfortossers.com. You can see her being interviewed in the video below.

What she has been able to do is undoubtedly impressive. Nevertheless, there is one resource that is impossible to recycle, and she has been very profligate with it. I am referring to time. The amount of time required to live such a lifestyle, which involves making your own toothpaste for example, will take away from other areas of your life. This is indeed a zero-sum game. In fact, we all recycle every day of our lives. Economist Don Boudreaux has an essay entitled “I Recycle!”. Here is an extract:

After I awaken, I shower and dry myself with a towel that I’ve had for a few years. I use this towel day after day. I don’t discard it after one use. When it gets dirty, I toss it in the washing machine to clean it for further use. I recycle my towel.

Then I brew coffee and fix breakfast. Each day I use the same coffeemaker that I used the day before. I clean it after each use, recycling it for the next time. My wife and I drink the coffee from mugs that have been used many times in the past. (Actually, one set of our coffee mugs was handed down to us after my wife’s parents used them for several years.) We also eat our breakfasts using dishes and utensils that are recycled from countless past uses. After breakfast, we don’t throw our mugs, dishes, and utensils away; instead we put them in the dishwasher to be recycled for yet another use

After breakfast, I dress myself in clothes that I’ve worn before and that I will wear again. My underwear, my pants, my shirt, my necktie, my belt, my coat, my shoes, my wristwatch, all are recycled from previous uses. And when I remove these clothes at day’s end, I’ll recycle them again, with the help of our automatic washer and dryer.

When my wife and I drive to work, we drive automobiles that we used the day before and that we’ll drive for the next few years. We don’t junk them after a single use. Instead, we recycle them, day in and day out.

The pots and pans that we use to prepare our meals, our toaster, our refrigerator, our television, our compact discs, our furniture, and, indeed, our house itself are all routinely recycled, use after use after use.

My family and I recycle a lot! And we’re not alone. Everyone recycles a lot.

However, we do need to distinguish between what is a resource and what is rubbish. Mike Munger from Duke University put it like this:

There is a simple test for determining whether something is a resource (something valuable) or just garbage (something you want to dispose of at the lowest possible cost, including costs to the environment). If someone will pay you for the item, it’s a resource. Or, if you can use the item to make something else people want, and do it at lower price or higher quality than you could without that item, then the item is also a resource. But if you have to pay someone to take the item away, or if other things made with that item cost more or have lower quality, then the item is garbage.”

What I oppose is the notion of recycling as a moral imperative, a religious impulse if you will. The rationale seems to be recycling is always cheaper regardless of the cost. I, though, believe in trade-offs. We need to calculate the costs and benefits of each option. Recycling does not always save resources and it does not invariably protect the environment. Recycling is a manufacturing process and, like other manufacturing processes, produces pollution. Take the case of paper. You get toxins in both recycling and producing from scratch. Indeed, sometimes the recycling process actually has higher levels than the virgin manufacturing does. Moreover, recycling more paper will not necessarily preserve trees. If paper recycling reaches high levels, demand for virgin paper would go down. Remember Lionel Robbins’s classic definition of economics: the study of scarce resources and their alternative uses. Some lands being used to grow trees will be put to other uses.

There is another myth that without recycling regulations and laws there wouldn’t be recycling. This is the Guardianista take; there is no problem that can’t be improved by more government regulation. Let’s take the case of aluminium. When I was young you could demonstrate your masculine prowess by crushing a beer can in your hand. Now such a feat requires no great strength. What is behind this change? The high price of aluminium has provided companies with the incentive to reduce amount of aluminium in each can, making them lighter and easier to crush. Here is a clear example of the price mechanism motivating companies to use resources more efficiently.

There is another myth I would like to address – the widespread belief that we are running out of resources. When I was growing up experts said that we were running out of oil. However this is misleading. The amount of proven reserves is not fixed by nature at some immutable number. The key point is that when prices change, consumers and producers change their behaviour in response. Proven reserves are a reflection of the amount of a resource that can be recovered at current prices. When the price of a resource goes up, so does the incentive to find more or find alternatives. Consumers will also conserve more when the price rises. What’s more technological change makes new options viable. Thus it is absurd to look at current reserves or current consumption patterns as being immutable.

So here is my perspective on recycling. I do think that economics, with its emphasis on trade-offs, has a lot offer on environmental questions. Sure, there will be market failures, and government intervention may be required so that companies have to pay for the negative externalities of what they produce. But there is also government failure. Governments providing farmers with subsidised water and the recent ethanol debacle are examples of the government making ecological situations worse. I am not a climate change sceptic. But I do oppose these top-down solutions so beloved of the Guardian. By analysing the costs and benefits of each action, we will find better outcomes. I am pessimistic, however. I think to find an international consensus will be almost impossible.

A couple of videos on recycling and resources

February 22, 2015

Here are a couple of short videos from the Learn Liberty website explaining the ideas I mentioned about recycling and resources:

The future of English

February 15, 2015

BBC Radio Four’s language podcast Word of Mouth looked at the future of English. How will English change over the next 50 to 100 years? Languages are in a constant state of flux. When it comes to words the rule is simple; the more a word is used, the less it evolves. Language evolution is about errors. When errors are made in speaking common words, they may tend to be corrected, precisely because they are so common and so important for communication. On the other hand rarely used words may well not be corrected, because they are infrequently heard. That allows the mutant form to get purchase. Words that tend not to change so rapidly, whereas adjectives will change more quickly

In the podcast they spent a lot of time analysing modal verbs. If you are unfamiliar with this grammatical term it refers to auxiliary verbs which are used to indicate modality – likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation. The modal verbs are: can, could, may, might, will, would, must, shall, should and ought to. Both dare and need also have a modal use. In the programme they talk about the evolution of these verbs. There are already changes that have taken place and this process may well continue. One example is the distinction between shall and will, with the former being used to express intention, and the latter volition. T This distinction has now all but disappeared with will taking on both roles. This kind of simplification is typical in language evolution. For the pedants amongst you here is an old joke about the use of will and shall:

A foreign tourist was swimming in an English lake. Taken by cramps, he began to sink. He called out for help:

“Attention! Attention! I will drown and no one shall save me!”

Many people were within earshot, but, being well-brought up Englishmen and women, they honoured his wishes and permitted him to drown.

I teach my students to use shall for offers (Shall I open the window?) or suggestions (What shall we do now?). For the rest of the time they should use will.  However, I do make them sign a contract which states that I will (or is that shall?) not be held responsible for any aquatic accidents.

Changes may reflect societal changes. There has been a reduction in deferentiality. This can be seen in the use of may. That old distinction – You can leave the table, but no you may not – is no longer valid.  I am a bit more sceptical about the claim that must is disappearing because it is too authoritarian.

Another linguist looking at the future of English is one who regularly appears in my posts – John McWhorter. In a Wall Street Journal piece called What Will the World Speak in 2115? McWhorter argues that English will remain the world’s lingua franca in a 100 years’ time. He predicts that English will become more widespread, and while it won’t be the sole language on the planet, thousands of other languages will die out.

People will speak their local language in their own environment but will use English for communication beyond. What about Chinese? China may well become the world’s economic superpower and it will still have the world’s largest population. But I don’t see Chinese as the world’s lingua franca. Not because of some magical qualities of English or the fact that the Chinese writing system is almost impossible to learn if you weren’t born into it. Rather, it reflects the reality that English, like the QWERTY keyboard, got there first. As McWhorter points out it has become so deeply entrenched in print, education and media that switching to anything else would entail an enormous effort. Of course there have been other lingua francas; languages such as Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian and Chinese itself have been spoken by vast numbers of people. But I don’t see Chinese knocking English off its perch. The Mongols once ruled China without needing to eliminate the Chinese language. If we are going to live a new age of Chinese pre-eminence, it is probably going to be in English.

The UK Pun Championships 2015

February 15, 2015


Here are the “highlights” from the The UK Pun Championships 2015,  part of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival on 12th February 2015.

Watson from Jeopardy to Chef extraordinaire

February 8, 2015

Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adrià, Jamie Oliver, Paul Bocuse, you’d better watch out – you have a new rival. Chef Watson may be under nine years old, but he is about to publish his first cookery book. This prodigy also won $1m on the American quiz show Jeopardy. I have been following Watson’s career since 2011. I think we can agree that we are in the presence of a unique talent. If you hadn’t realised it already Watson is not human. It is a computer designed by IBM. It is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, which was named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson, famous for his infamous 1943 prediction that there would be a world market for five computers. This is the blurb from the website:

Watson is a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer—by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes. And learn it does. Watson “gets smarter” in three ways: by being taught by its users, by learning from prior interactions, and by being presented with new information. This means organizations can more fully understand and use the data that surrounds them, and use that data to make better decisions.

It was IBM Research manager Charles Lickel who came up with the idea of an IBM computer competing on a popular TV quiz show. At the time of its Jeopardy appearance, Watson had access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage including the full text of Wikipedia. However, it was not connected to the Internet during the game. For each clue, Watson’s three most probable responses were displayed on the television screen. The machine was able to answer questions including puns, synonyms, homonyms, slang and jargon. First it zeroed in on the key words in a clue, then it would comb its enormous data bank of human knowledge for clusters of associations with those words, checking the most popular hits against all the contextual information it has at its disposal. Once it felt “confident” enough it would buzz with the answer. This method proved too much for a great human champion Ken Jennings, who, like Gary Kasparov before him, was overpowered by an IBM artificial intelligence machine. You can see a video of how Watson works:

Winning Jeopardy was just a showcase for the potential for this kind of machine. There are many possible applications in information-intensive fields such as legal research, telecommunications, financial services, and government. One particularly promising area is medicine. Doctors pose a query to the system describing symptoms and other related factors. Watson can then examine available data sources, forming and testing hypotheses before it finally comes up with a list of personalised confidence-scored recommendations, just like it did on Jeopardy. This will never replace humans, but it can surely be an invaluable tool. It is also revolutionising the travel sector. Travelocity reduced the need for live travel agents to handle routine arrangements. But with cognitive computing IBM will be able to harness the power of computing for giving tailored and customised travel advice. WayBlazer, powered by Watson, will allow its customers to ask questions using a natural language interface.

And now we come to Chef Watson. The Guardian featured a piece about Watson’s recipes, which will be published on April 14th this year. Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will set you back $21.14 from Amazon.com. Watson was fed data about foods traditionally enjoyed by humans. The idea was the computer to analyse what we like in order to suggest new suggest new flavour combinations. There is a human element; chefs at the US Institute of Culinary Education then transformed these ingredient lists into recipes. They promise “unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine”. You can see a video of the project here:

The Guardian journalist looked at five recipes and seemed distinctly underwhelmed. He did give Kenyan brussels sprouts a 4.5/5 but the American kung pao chicken and Plum pancetta cider got 1 and 0 respectively. However, you bet against computers at your peril. Just ask Garry Kasparov!


My favourite links #43

February 8, 2015

Radiotopia is a new podcast network from PRX, where they’ve assembled a number of the most successful and promising podcasters around. I fist came across this network through their 99% Invisible podcast (“design, architecture, and the 99 percent invisible activity that shapes our world”), which is fronted by Roman Mars. Apart from 99% Invisible you can hear many other podcasts. They tend to be between 15 and 20 minutes in duration. So far apart from the Roman Mars show, I have tried The Allusionist and Criminal. I plan to check out more over the next few weeks.


A sceptic’s guide to subliminal advertising

February 1, 2015


Audiotapes promise to enlarge women’s breasts. A Republican TV attack ad aimed at candidate Al Gore briefly flashes the word “RATS” superimposed on Gore’s face. Judas Priest insert satanic messages in their music and a fan commits suicide as a result. Welcome to the world of subliminal messages. It sounds like something from the mind of a George Orwell or an Aldous Huxley. It does indeed seem like a terrifying prospect, but how real is the threat of subliminal manipulation?

The website dictionary.com define subliminal thus: existing or operating below the threshold of consciousness; being or employing stimuli insufficiently intense to produce a discrete sensation but often being or designed to be intense enough to influence the mental processes or the behaviour of the individual. Modern psychology accepts that much of our mental processing goes on outside of our immediate awareness—that our brains work on many tasks at once without monitoring them consciously. There is also an effect known as priming in which I mentioned in my post about Daniel Kahneman. This is when exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus. Here is what I wrote:

“The most curious is an experiment by John Bargh, a psychologist at New York University. One group of college students were asked to arrange brief sentences including the words Florida, forgetful, bald, grey, or wrinkle. The other half were presented with none of these words. On completing their task, the students were told to walk down the corridor to another room. The experimenters recorded the time the students took to walk this short distance. Surprisingly, the students in the first group walked more slowly than those in the second group. This has been dubbed “the Florida effect.” The unconscious association of terms commonly associated with being old actually had an effect on the students’ walking pace.”

But when people think about subliminal messages they are describing something far more sinister.

The birth of subliminal advertising goes back to a 1957 experiment by a market researcher named James Vicary. During the showing of a film at Anew Jersey cinema the commands “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” were inserted into the movie. They only appeared for a single frame, allegedly long enough for the subconscious to pick up, but too short for the viewer to be aware of it. Nevertheless, they created an 18.1% increase in Coke sales and a 57.8% increase in popcorn sales. There is only one problem – it appears to have been a hoax. It certainly wasn’t scientifically rigorous; this was an experiment without a control group. However, the media lapped it up and Vance Packard popularized this view of the unconscious in his 1957 smash bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard believed Vicary’s tale hook, line and sinker. In 1962 Vicary apparently in 1962 that he’d made up the whole story in an effort to revive his failing consulting business.*

You would have though that this would have been the end of this story. But subliminal manipulation is one of those zombie ideas that just refuse to go away. Even though there was no evidence that it actually works, subliminal advertising has been banned for more than half a century in the USA. And in the 1970s with the paranoia about government and the whole Watergate business, the idea came back in the work of Wilson Bryan Key, who claimed that advertisers were using subliminal messaging of a very serious sexual nature in order to manipulate behaviour. Advertisers were conspiring to influence consumer choices by embedding blurred sexual images into television and magazine ads. Key argued that just one exposure to these camouflaged images could affect consumer choices weeks later. The Straight Dope website describes him thus:

This is a guy who also claims that every Ritz cracker has the word “sex” embedded on it 12 times on each side; that on April 21, 1986, Time magazine published a picture of Moammar Gadhafi with the word “kill” embedded on the face; and that once at a Howard Johnson’s he felt compelled to order fried clams, even though he hates fried clams, because (he later discovered) the place mat had a picture of fried clams containing subliminal images of an orgy including oral sex and bestiality with a donkey. This guy doesn’t have sex embedded in his pictures, he’s got sex embedded in the brain.

I came across these characters in a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Can You Spot the Hidden Message? What was great about the programme was that they then conducted an experiment on subliminal advertising on the following programme – The Infinite Monkey Cage. The experiment took place in a cinema-type environment. 98 volunteers were divided up into a test group and a control group. Each group were shown a three minute clip of Spooks, which was picked because it is full of fast cuts and moving camerawork. The test group were shown a video that contained the subliminal message, while the control group’s video contained no secret messages. The subliminal message chosen was Lipton, as in the famous brand of iced tea. Lipton was chosen for two reasons: it was reasonably familiar, but not generally a habitual choice, like Coca Cola, and it was seen as thirst-quenching. The members of the audience had been plied with crisps and nuts during the show. The participants were then asked whether they wanted to drink Lipton iced tea or mineral water.

The results showed no statistically significant effects. For all participants, a few more people in the test group picked Lipton, but not enough to be statistically significant. When they removed those who would have picked Lipton anyway, and those who dislike it and would never pick it, slightly more people in the control group picked Lipton, but this difference was not significant either. Here is a summary of the findings I found online:

Test group (all participants): 46% chose Lipton, 54% water

Control group (all participants) 37% Lipton, 63% water

Results refined to exclude those who would definitely have chosen Lipton, or who would definitely not have chosen it

Test group (refined) 53% Lipton, 47% water

Control group (refined) 61% Lipton, 39% water

This is just one study of course. This experiment has apparently been carried out successfully under laboratory conditions. But I remain sceptical. There may be some effects, but they do not appear to be very marked. It is extremely difficult to pull it off. If the flashes are too fast, they are not even subconsciously perceptible. If they are too slow, some people would notice them. The subliminal messages may influence choice immediately after the film, but it is hard to imagine them having a lasting effect on their drink purchases once they had left the cinema. What’s more, if any advertiser caught trying this for real, it would be a PR disaster. Advertisers do influence us, but their techniques are there for all to see. I hope I have been able to persuade you of the rather tenuous effect of subliminal advertising. Anyone for a Ritz?

* According to one website, this was all a massive cover-up:

In 1962 Vicary suddenly confesses that he fabricated the results of his experiment… Why would someone discredit himself in such a way and lose his dignity and credibility? It’s obvious that he was paid to do so by those who use subliminal messages to manipulate you. Remember the quote from “Usual Suspect” : The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist… That’s exactly the trick they are trying to pull, I.E. convincing the world that subliminal technique does not work. And they did a pretty good job.”

Disney Illuminati exposed satanic sexual propaganda

February 1, 2015

Don’t say you haven’t been warned!