Economists: always surprising

I’m always surprised by economists and the things they come up with. If you’ve ever read Freakanomics, you’ll be aware of the exciting trends they can uncover (abortion as the cause of reduced crime in the US, etc).

But they can also devise some extremely clever ways of encouraging certain behaviours and discouraging others. Take carbon trading: it’s worth billions already and is encouraging industry to become greener using the motivation of large profits for those who are environmentally friendly. Carbon taxes, currently being argued about by all the main UK political parties, are a way of discouraging environmentally unfriendly behaviour.

The most clever green proposal I’ve seen is to discourage electricity suppliers from charging per kilowatt, but instead to provide a warm, well-lit house as a service, to be delivered in whatever way the supplier deems necessary:

“People aren’t fussed about how much power they buy,” explains Philip Sellwood, chief executive of the trust. “If energy suppliers sold a service – a lit and heated house, rather than units of gas or electricity – then they would face incentives to provide it as efficiently as possible.” In theory, such companies would even pay to improve their customers’ homes, cutting their own costs in the process. One is already operating in Woking, a green-minded town; another is planned to start in London.

See? That’s clever.

An alternative to antibiotics

Interesting piece on Slate about phages – viruses that attack bacteria. They’re available in the former Soviet Union over the counter and could prove the answer to increasing immunity to antibiotics. I think I remember reading about them in a book about the former SU’s biowarfare programme, so they’re not making it up…

More than just parroting?

There’s a parrot called N’kisi that apparently has learnt 950 words. Impressive, huh? He probably knows more by now, actually. I’m not totally convinced by the claims made for him, though, with word fabrication being one of the simplest claims and telepathy being the most extraordinary. If I weren’t for the telepathy bit, I’d be more convinced…

Why are the Americans so interested in our sewers?

Don’t get me wrong – the articles are actually pretty interesting. Who knew Peter Bazalgette, the man behind BIg Brother in the UK, was so into sewers or that there’s such outstanding architecture at sewage treatment works? But why is there a daily series on London’s sewers on Slate this week? Are US readers really fascinated by London’s sewage system? Sewage systems in general? All aspects of UK or London life?

Odd. Very odd.

Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition gets another beating

“They’ve no myths, numbers or colours and few words for past or present – no wonder the Pirahã people defy our most cherished ideas about language”. It’s another cracking article in New Scientist about language that seems to suggest Whorfian ideas of culture affecting language might be more accurate than Chomsky’s universal grammar. Give it a read if you have a mo.

Ion hairdryers again

A week ago, we bought an ‘ion-emitting’ hairdryer, which among other things is supposed to get rid of static electricity in the hair and imbue it with moisture.

Oh what a surprise. It doesn’t. It’s actually worse than a normal hairdryer. Just thought I’d warn all you hairdryer buyers out there before you bit the bullet and bought one.