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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for date: 03-2011

Sunny side

Rational Optimism in a tabloid

To mark today's UK publication of The Rational Optimist in paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:

FOR the past month, the news has been all bad - war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, inflation, cuts... and the cricket.

The anxiety of choice versus the tyranny of others choosing for us

Andrew Mayne on social biases in studies of the psychology of choice

Guest post by Andrew Mayne

"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the individual, but for society."

High hanging fruit

Tim Worstall riffs on William Baumol to fascinating effect:

One way of putting which is that increasing labour productivity in services is more difficult than improving it in manufacturing. Canonically, we cannot get a symphony orchestra to be more productive by playing at twice the speed. So, ally this with wages being determined by average productivity, we'll see the amount we need to spend on labour to get services to rise against the amount we need to spend on labour to get manufactures. Services will become more expensive relative to manufactures over time.

However, this is not certain. A tendency, yes, but not a certainty. For it is possible, through innovation, to turn a service into, if not a manufacture, at least an automated operation. Think replacing bank clerks with ATMs. Skilled typists with dictation software. We can record the symphony once and play it many times on a gramophone/Walkman/iPod.

Nuclear crony capitalism

As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the time when my doubts have been growing.

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

The Cartesian Spectator

My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new book Soul Dust

In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings. Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."

Nuclear's future

Time for a re-boot to find a cheaper design?

I have written two articles in the past few days on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident? drama? -- not sure what the right word is).

This was for The Times on 16th March:

Leviathan versus Behemoth

Wealth and technology make the death toll smaller, not larger

The biggest natural killers of the last decade -- Haiti's earthquake, Burma's cyclone and Sumatra's tsunami -- were all far, far more lethal because they struck poor countries.

Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail writes:

Of course, the modern world is better equipped than the ancients to survive these cataclysmic disasters. We have stronger buildings, better communications and international aid agencies to help the recovery process. But older societies had a more realistic sense of their place in the world.

Which would you rather have? A more realistic sense of your place in the world -- or your life? The remarkable thing about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is how many more they would have killed if Japan had still been a poor country.

A martyred and plagiarized heretic

Let's give credit to a great founder of the English language, and not a committee

This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:

This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But I have an uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.

Maritime Man

Did the ancestors of modern humans beings spend a lot of time by the seaside?

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Photo: Jon Erlandson

s a mobile signal now a necessity rather than a luxury?

The Times ran this column by me last week:

When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries were silent, mute, lifeless.

Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works' is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.

Closing the black box

atest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

When did you last read an account of how microchips actually work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they work.

My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the technology becomes a black box.

Your genes are your own to test

Don't let physicians have a gate-keeping role between you and your genetic information

Speaking in hands before tongues?

he intriguing theory that language evolved for gesture first and speech later

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that stuttering is more common among the left-handed.

The connection between handedness and speech runs deep. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather than speech.