Monday, June 17, 2013

What is a Geography Degree Worth?

The Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce has just released a document on the economic value of college majors ( . Although a US based study, the report still has relevance for UK graduates in what is increasingly an international market for the best jobs. The report also highlights gender and ethnic differences in subject areas as well as the types of employment people in different subject areas tend to get. The first clear result is that in the US any degree is better than none in terms of deferential earning power. Although classified as a Social Science, geography does quite well in comparison with other subjects in its grouping coming in fourth behind economics,statistics and political science with a median income of $54,000. Economics tends to inflate the median and average for this grouping  having a median earnings of $70,000. In the Physical Sciences, Geological and Earth Sciences have a median income of $62,000. an important consideration to bear in mind is the time scale and the position in their working life or career fro each individual in the survey. some degrees lead to a clear career path and act as entrances to major industries that can inflate the earnings fro particular subject areas. It may not come as a surprise that the highest earning subjects are Petroleum Geology followed by Pharmacy and then Administration (I do find that one a hit worrying but that may just be me!) It is also interesting that the subject areas of Counseling Psychology and Early Childhood Education are amongst the lowest earnings despite the importance of such work - an interesting illustration of the problem of  social worth versus economic value maybe? .

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dan Brown’s Inferno: Population, Resources and Socio-Economic Futures

Dan Brown’s recent book Inferno has had mixed reviews at best (e.g.,, ). You could take the view that Dan Brown, as Liberace before him, is probably crying all the way to the bank. Dan Brown in an interview with the BBC, however, shows his concern at such ‘hurtful’ reviews as he sees them but, as importantly Brown views overpopulation, the central motivating force of the book’s ‘villain’ Betrand Zobrist, as a key messge of his book.

Leaving aside the literary merits of the book (I read it in three night, enjoyed the ride and got annoyed as some of the tour book description slowed the plot, but that is just me), Brown believes he explores the central concern of overpopulation is explored from both sides, and enters the 'grey' area of suggesting a scientific solution. Brown takes a very Maltusian, doom and gloom, view of overpopulation citing the usual population increase is geometric whilst resources grow at an arithmetic rate, hence we're all doomed. Technology and science provides the resolution to the problem, although whether it is within the remit of technological solutions envisaged by Ester Boesrup back in the 1960s is another question. After finishing the book I thought there was probably a more interesting book to be written about the implications of the solution the mad-scientist comes up with and how thinking through the solution helped to identify how current socio-economic activity is tied to fertility and demographics.

For those that have not yet read the book a spoiler warning now! Betrand Zobrist, the 'villian' (or hero depending on yoru view point), is a genius geneticist who hides away from everyone for a year to come up with his solution to the problems of overpopulation. Inferno is about the hunt, after Zobrist suicide in Florence, for his genetically engineered answer. Throughout the book the reader assumes, as the pieces fall into place, that the ‘solution’ is some type of super virus, a new plague that will reduce global population to a sustainable level through mass contagion, mass death and destruction. The twist, apart from the fact that Langdon doesn’t prevent the release of the virus, is that the virus doesn’t kill people. The virus affects the genetics of the world population so that a third of the population is sterile and so perpertual population control is achieved. The third is randomly selected and the virus persists through time so that a random third of the population is always sterile. Brown seems to assume that the scientific solution is an end to his story: his two heroines jet off to the World Health Organisation in Geneva to sort out the implications. I would suggest that the scientific solution would unravel due to these implications.
The interesting thought is if such a ‘solution’ was implemented what would the world look like in ten, fifty or hundred years? What does such a vision tells us about the intertwining of socio-economic structures and fertility?
· What would be the status of the sterile third? Would they be viewed as drones to service the ‘productivity’ two-thirds of the world’s population? Would a change in status produce an effective underclass?

· Would personal relations be ‘managed’ by the state to ensure that sterile individuals did not marry fertile individuals? What are the social implications of such management?

· Expectation of fertility is an essential element in maintaining social structures. Passing on wealth and power as well as the hope for the future of your offspring is a key determinant in socio-economic relationships. If the third was truly random, i.e. your children could be sterile even if you were not, then there would be no certainty of being able to ensure this transfer of resources. What would be the socio-economic implications of such uncertainty? Why accumulate wealth if it is not to be past on or would a larger unit than the family become the focus of human emotional attachment.

· Random does not mean spatially homogeneous. As with any random process there are likely to be clusters of sterility and fertility. How would such a distribution affect power relations between nations? Would initial differences in fertility/sterility rates be magnified through time leading to a redistribution of power and economic wealth?

Inferno is a nice read (at least I think so) but the scientific solution should not be viewed outside of the socio-economic context that it would impact. The implications, left to the unseen committee in Geneva in the book, are the forces most likely to untangle the idealist solution.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Monitoring Coastal Changes in Saltmarshes: Maps or Aerial Photography?

A key aspect of the recent changes in planning legislation is that development should be preferred provided it is sustainable. On coastal margins there is an additional issue of the potential impact of sea-level change on increased development. Development behind existing coastal defences, both human and natural, seems to be encouraged within the new planning legislation as it makes use of investment already sunk into defence and implies that any future sea-level rise will be accompanied by increasing investment these defences.
Given the importance of these defences it is essential to know how the coastline has responded in the past. The rate of past change is an important indicator as to how dynamic the coast is and how it is likely to respond to increasing sea-level. A long-term, over 50 or 100 or more years, view of rates of change often makes use of historic maps to establish baselines from which change is measured. A recent paper by Brian Baily and myself ( I made the coffee again!) published in the Journal of Coastal Conservation looks at how maps have been used as sources of evidence of coastal change in the Solent (specifically Lymington, Beaulieu River, Calshot Spit, Eling, Portsmouth Harbour, Langstone Harbour and Pagham Harbour). The paper  is entitled Assessing historical saltmarsh change; an investigation into the reliability of historical saltmarsh mapping using contemporaneous aerial photography and cartographic data, a long title but a very accurate description of what the paper does. The paper assesses how these maps have been used to identify and quantify changes in saltmarsh, an important coastal ecosystem and a natural protective barrier. In current terms a key ecosystem service. Importantly, the locations and rates of change these maps suggest are compared to the rates of change that an analysis of aerial photography provides. 

The mapping of saltmarsh is full of problems that limit the reliability of the changes measured. Surveyors in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, did not have a clear and specific set of instructions about what to map above the low water mark. Inconsistencies in the accuracy and precision of saltmarsh identification and mapping are bound to arise when a surveyor was confronted with the practical and often hazardous task of trying to get into a saltmarsh and survey it. Similarly, this ecosystem was not viewed as a particularly valuable resource in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and so the incentive to get into the mud and accurately survey was not really there. In addition, the growth of Spartina spp. in this period would have made the identification and mapping of this ecosystem tricky at best in some locations. Often saltmarshes were only indicated by some symbol on a map covering a vaguely defined area of land – not the best baseline from which to accurately measure changes.

The aerial photography of the same areas provided a useful control from which to assess the accuracy of the location and rates of change in saltmarshes derived from maps. The aerial photography shows that large areas of saltmarsh were excluded from the OS maps – so major losses of a valuable coastal ecosystem can not be quantified. These areas seem to be the newer salt marshes and so areas that are likely to have provided coastal protection in the recent past as development has occurred in these coastal regions. Given that salt marshes can change in extent rapidly this suggests that analysis of rates of change in this important protective coastal ecosystem needs to be gauged against the accurate data provided by aerial photography which is only available from the early twentieth century onwards rather than from the potentially more inaccurate figures provided by historic mapping in the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Actor Networks, Rare Events and Antifragility

In a recent blog I discuss some aspects of antifragility as suggested by Nassim Taleb’s recent book on Antifragility. Thinking a bit more about the nature of fragile and antifragile networks of relations could be of use in planning for rare events and their impacts. A well-aligned and well co-ordinated network of actors with a dense set of relations defining and binding their netowrk tightly may mean that the network is deeply embedded but this may be a disaster when a rare event hits. As I mentioned before, an event can illuminate the structure and relations in a network. A rare event, a major disruption, puts the spotlight on the fragility (or otherwise) of the web of relations. A well-aligned and co-ordinated network may function excellently for specific actants under ‘normal’ conditions, but in a rare, extreme event these relations may not be able to function. A dense network of relations may be too dense under these extreme conditions. The failure of one relation or the disappearance of one actant may produce a domino effect and trigger the unravelling of the whole web. A dense and highly focused actor network may be fragile to such disruption. A less dense and less well-aligned actor network may be at a disadvantage under ‘normal’ conditions but may have the flexibility to form new relations in disruptive events due to this weaker alignment and co-ordination of relations. Similarly, an actant with the flexibility to activate a different set of relations from the actor network it is usually associated with may be more able to survive and thrive in an disruptive event than a more specialist and network dependent actant or even a whole network.
If correct, then the above suggests that the density (and strength) of relations that define an actor network as well as the specialisation of actants will affect the fragility and antifragility of this network to rare events. Where an actor network has dormant relations, ones that are either unnoticed or unused during ‘normal’ periods, then there is a chance that the actor network could survive by activating these relations in times of crisis. The actor network that emerges, however, would be different from the one that entered the crisis. The dormant relations would now be known to the actants and be active rather than passive. The current banking crisis could be viewed in this light. When the crisis hit the usual sources of safety in the network failed. It was only when the dormant relationship between finance and the state was explicitly activated to prevent those ‘too big to fail’ from failing that some degree of stability was felt by the financial sector (OK oversimplifying like mad but you get the idea). But now that dormant relation is clear and present, everyone knows about it and the new financial network is being constructed with that relation in clear focus and all the issues of moral hazard and tax-payer bail-out that it brings.

There is an assumption in the above, however, that all rare events are the same. This is not necessarily the case as a recent paper by Lampel, Shamsie and Shapira (2009) in Organization Science (you need an account to access the journal). The paper ‘Experiencing the improbable: Rare event and organizational learning’ is a brief summary of the ideas in the special issue of papers on rare events and organizational learning. Importantly, they provide a four-fold classification of the types of learning that rare events produce in organizations based on the potential relevance of the event and the potential impact as in the table below.

                                                                       Potential Impact

Potential Relevance                                 High                          Low

High                                               Transformative              Reinterpretative

Low                                               Focusing                       Transitory

Table: Types of learning associated with rare events
Leaving aside the detail of the table (the subject of future blog!), the idea that a rare event has different affects depending upon the nature of the organization it impacts upon can be translated to actor networks as well. A rare event that is high on both criteria will have the potential to transform the nature of the network. In this case the points about relation density, dormant relations and actant characteristics are highly relevant. These are the rare events that can expose antifragility. A rare event with high potential relevance for a network but low potential impact (such as near-misses) can act as a means of forces reinterpretation of the current web of relations. The impetus to act on reinterpretation will, however, be determined by the interests of the actants and the ease with which the relations that define the network can be altered. Effort is required to overcome resistant to change in the absent of an event that causes transformation. If handled appropriately though this type of rare event could enable the actor network to alter and so improves its robustness or even atnifragiltiy to rare events without having to go through the pain of a transformative event. Drawing the lessons from such events and finding the will amongst key actants is however a major barrier as it is likely that no-one organziatino can affect such leanrign on its own - a sector-wide or even government-led inititative maybe required. A rare event that has high relevance but low potential impact for a network can, similarly, focuses attention on specific issues and problems within the network. Once again, however, change will depend upon who defines these problems and the willingness or ability of actants to alter the relations that define the network.

Friday, March 8, 2013

ANT and Antifragility in ‘No Man’s Land’ Oklahoma

A recent paper by Rebecca Sheehan and Jacqueline Vadjunec  (Oklahoma State University) in Social and Cultural Geography (Volume 13, December 2012, pages 915-936 you will need an account to access the journal online) on communities in Oklahoma’s ‘No Man’s Land’ is a very good demonstration of how actor network theory can be used to analyse how communities are constructed and, importantly, how they behave under stress. Sheehan and Vadjunec note how residents work together on tasks such as branding in the spring, collecting necessities in towns that could be 30-150 miles away and travelling to hospital when a ranching or farming accident happens. This neighbourly behaviour and the relations it is based on underlies what they describe as a robust actor network of relations.

I was wondering if you could go further than this and suggest that the actor network is actually antifragile? The authors point out two examples that may back up this idea that the actor network actually gains strength from adversity. Medical expenses for individuals in the community were often covered by fundraisers or anonymous donations that were also made to cover funeral expenses. Likewise, these adverse events produced responses of kindness that ranged from phone calls of sympathy and understanding to practical help of meals and contributions to ranch work. In one case the death of a farmer at harvest time resulted in the unplanned, spontaneous reaction of several farmers turning up with their combines within 36 hours of his death to help the widow to collect the harvest.

Adverse, or what seem to be adverse events, activate relations in the actor network that produce behaviour that help individuals and seem to strengthen the sense of community and the actor network as a whole. It is only by the enactment of these relations in times of adversity however that this strengthening can occur.
If this argument is accepted then a whole battery of other issues arise that only the detailed analysis of actor networks in particular locations can answer. These actor networks need to be studied before during and after adverse events to analyse which relations are activated, how and if there is any pattern to these relations. Events are the only means by which relations can be identified and their role in strengthening the actor network understood. Similarly, it is through such detailed analysis that we can begin to map out the limits to such antifragile behaviour. The strengthening behaviour in this case seems to be an organic outgrowth from the underlying relations that define and bind the community. Eroding these relations will erode the ability of the community to define itself and to strengthen itself in the face of adverse events. Understanding the type of adverse events such actor networks can cope with, absorb the impacts of and gain strength from is also an important aspect that requires further research. Communities may be antifragile in the face of certain adverse events but be extremely fragile should the nature of the adverse event change. In the case of this community, if the adverse event is a general failure of all harvests then the capacity to respond and help other members of the network dissipates. If the encroachment of ‘new’ people into the area happens then this again may weaken the underlying relations that aid community definition, eroding the capacity to activate relations in crisis events and so gain strength from the community-based respond to a crisis event. Starting to map the contours of what an antifragile actor network looks like and the limits of antifragile behaviour could be an interesting area of research.

Haddon Matrix and ‘Black Swans’

The Haddon Matrix is an extremely useful way to express the factors associated with a hazardous event and the changes that need to be affected in the host, the equipment and the environment (both social and physical). I have covered the Haddon Matrix in a previous post, in fact to date the most popular post on this blog. I am not denigrating the Haddon Matrix and its usefulness but recent publications Nassim Nicolas Taleb such a The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, second edition 2010) highlight the potential of unexpected, rare events in systems. Taleb does not believe that effort such be wasted trying to predict these rare events but rather than robust systems should be devised to avoid the negative impacts of these events. So does the Haddon Matrix help to prevent hazards or accidents when a Black Swan strikes?

The Haddon Matrix tends to focus on specific events and their immediate impact. The ‘classic’ example often seen on the Web is a car accident where there is a clearly defined agent or host, a clearly defined piece of equipment and a fuzzy but often clearly defined environment at least in the mind of the person who constructs the matrix. The matrix is focused on a particular event usually one that is well known to the person constructing the matrix. The event is singular and derived from thinking about common scenarios of ‘what ifs’. Importantly, the event is divorced and isolated from its complex context. The event is treated as an individual example of an oft-repeated set, as an individual example of a particular kind of hazard or accident. This means that the contours of the event are relatively well know, the limited impact and the limited range of changes that need to be made to the host or equipment clearly demarcated. The event is somewhat simplified by removing it from its context.

Rare events can also be considered within the Haddon Matrix and planned for but events that have never happened or are not within the experience of the constructor of the matrix can not be considered. A series of events could be dealt with by interlinking matrices or even by using Reason’s Swiss cheese model of accidents but each matrix or cheese slice will deal only with a single event not the interconnected system as a whole not the complex and potentially unique relations that these rarities activate within the whole system of which the event identified is only a part. In this case, however, the accident or hazard itself is actually a chain or web of events operating in unison under the influence of the rare event. The exact connections in the system will give the rare event its character. Given the rarity of the event can you be sure that when it happens again the system will be connected, or rather interconnected, in exactly the same manner and so will the precautions that you take have to be exactly the same? As the complexity of the system behind the hazard or accident you are dealing with increases then the possibility that impacts will occur via different connections or pathways is likely to increase. A static Haddon Matrix may not be able to cope with such dynamism that a Black Swan generates within a system.

Black Swan events may also imply that there are two classes of hazards or accidents that need to be considered. The first is the hazard that is known about, one for which have occurred and reoccurred again and again with sufficient regularity that their characteristics can be well defined and clearly defined steps taken to prevent their escalation. The second class of hazards or accidents are those that occur so rarely that each instant is a novel and unusual case with its own set of peculiar characteristics. These events are so infrequent that no reasonable plans can be made to prevent them. It is only after they have happened that we can understand why they happened, what aspects of the system were compromised and then take steps to ensure that the same pathways to failure do not happen again, although the next Black Swan event may be so different as to circumvent our efforts.

If the Black Swan, almost by definition, falls outside the experience of the matrix constructor then is the matrix of any use in these cases? Black Swans may not be predictable but that should not stop attempts to build a robust system to manage impacts. A densely connected system is likely to transmit impacts rapidly from one part to another, maybe along channels or by connections that can be predicted as weak links or pinch points.  Ensuring that there are ‘firebreaks’ in the system, potential break-points in its connectivity, could help prevent a systemic failure even if the exact nature of the rare event is unclear and unpredictable.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

UK government not reducing pollution in line with legal limits

With all the concern over atmospheric pollution levels in China a story may have escaped notice. The UK government is facing a case in the UK Supreme Court over its failure to reduce air pollution in line with legal limits ( The government admitted that limits would not be meet in 15 regions until 2020 (London will not comply until 2025). This comes on top of the government having to issue a severe pollution warning for London this week.

The response of the government has been to say that the laws are unrealistically strict and that the EU didn’t set proper limits on pollution from diesel exhaust in the first place. Why they view these limits are unrealistic is not clear. Do they mean given the current economic situation it is not realistic to expect pollution to be tackled? Do they mean the limits are to be meet in too short a timeframe? Does the comment imply that there is an expected time lag between introducing the limits and compliance – if so why? Does the comment relate to how the government expects such changes in polluting behaviour to be tackled within the particular political and economic context of the UK.

DEFRA stated that the government has acted to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide through trying to encourage behaviour changes in divers via tax breaks and subsidies for low emission vehicles. Likewise, there has been investment in green bus technologies  (£75million) along with £560m to encourage local sustainable transport. This is the government response to trying to improve the atmospheric levels of PM10s and nitrogen dioxide, key pollutants from road traffic. In other words responsible for implementing and resolving the issue has been delegated downwards to the local level, indeed even as far as down the individual driver. Action is also indirect via tax incentives to which individuals are meant to respond in the manner the government thinks they should.  Rather than direct action or legislation, the government has taken a ‘nudge’ approach to the problem, developing policies and the context or environment that they believe will provide the impetus to encourage change in the direction they want. Reduction in atmospheric pollution is a side-effect, an outcome of these nudges. The question could be asked will these nudges be effective? Likewise, how can you measure the impact of such nudges to assess if they have been effective?

The threat of court action also places the complaints over Chinese pollution in a different light. It could be argued that the atmospheric pollution levels in the UK are much lower than in China and so different criteria should be applied to the problems of the UK government. The UK is not dealing with dense smogs that clog lungs and increase death rates (although calculations do suggest that traffic pollution does cause excess deaths in the UK as noted in the above report). The pollution of concern in the UK seems to be focused on road traffic and so a linear pollution source whilst the Chinese are having to deal with point, linear and areal sources as they go through rapid urbanization and economic growth.  Indeed the Chinese are having to cope with multiple sources of differing magnitudes and with both private and official institutions involved. The magnitudes of the pollution maybe of different orders in the UK and China but both are struggling to balance the needs of economic development and the pollution it produces.  So is atmospheric pollution the unavoidable price for economic development?