Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

October 4, 2013

We don’t actually need to grow that much more food

Filed under: Economics,Food — zarazilla @ 5:46 am
Tags: , , , ,

I wrote this for a forum post on the Coursera Sustainability course I mentioned in my last post and figured since I spent time on it I might as well post it here!

Basically I am arguing that the Jonathan Foley TED video “The other inconveient truth”  that we were asked to watch says that we need to grow 2 to 3 times more food because of a growing population (the estimate is population stabilizes around 2050 at around 9.6 billion people).  So what they are saying is that you need 200-300% more food for 37% more people (assuming world population is currently 7 billion).  What do they base this off of?  That most demand will come from people in developing nations eating more meat and possibly turning food into biofuels.

I disagree that everybody needs/will be eating the amount of meat people in the current developed nations are eating and that we will continue to turn food into biofuel (which gives you 1.2 units of energy for every 1 unit you put in… in other words a very poor energy ratio).

Say, for the purposes of this point, that we reach our limit of food production, due to water, space, whatever before we get to 200%.  This is essentially a limit on the supply of food, which will naturally cause the price of food to go up.  Well the price of meat will go up much more than the price of grains/vegetables, because the cost of feeding livestock is competing against the cost of feeding humans, so the cost of meat will rise as a multiple of the cost of grains/vegetables.  This will cause less meat to be bought.
So yes, food will be more expensive, but it will still be affordable, and it will not be scarce.  Meat will become a premium product, just as it used to be 40 years ago in the developed countries and just as it currently is in the developing countries.  Nobody needs to eat meat 2-3 times a day 7 days a week, although certainly the richest will continue to do so.  But the middle class may cut down on the amount of meat they eat; although they will still be able to afford it regularly.  In fact the US is currently reducing meat consumption per capita.
The main issue I see is the issue as it is today – distribution/equality.  As food prices rise, will we once again leave behind the poorest while the richest chow down on meat that’s been feed the grains the poorest should have?  There will certainly be enough to eat, but not if everybody insists on eating meat 21 meals a week.
As for biofuels… I’d certainly hope our energy needs won’t be so severe as to continue using scarce food for inefficient bio-fuels.  As food gets more expensive, the cost-effectiveness of using it for bio-fuel should decrease, leading to people producing energy from other sources.  So if we are so desperate as to use expensive food for bio-fuels, then we are in a lot of trouble indeed.  I doubt this will happen though, as the cost of renewable forms of energy have become a lot cheaper to produce and continue on a downward trend.
(TL;DR) So let’s be clear – we don’t NEED to produce 3x more food.  We only need that if we want EVERYBODY to be eating cheap meat and to continue using inefficent biofuel sources.

October 3, 2013


Filed under: Economics — zarazilla @ 2:51 pm
Tags: , ,

While unemployed I’m refreshing my sustainability knowledge by taking Coursera’s Sustainability Course. This week the focus is on water and agriculture.  I’ve also recently sent out my (5 year old!) thesis on reducing slash and burn agriculture in Indonesia to a potential employer as a writing sample.  These two combined have got me thinking of a conversation I had in a village in Sumatra (Indonesia) while conducting research for my thesis.  I think of this conversation often and would like to share it.

Surveys over for the day, my translator and I were chatting with the local farmers who were curious about life in the UK.  One of them asked me “Are farmers in the UK struggling like us?” I laughed at first, thinking it was a joke, until I realised they were all looking at me quite seriously and my translator pointed out that the farmer was serious.

“No”, I replied. “Farmers in the west are generally rich”.

The farmer looked pleased.  “I’m glad”, he said. “They are my brothers, and I am happy they are doing well”.

I looked at him in consternation.  He was so generous, and so genuinely comforted by the fact that his ‘brothers’ in the UK were doing well, I didn’t even know whether I could, or even should, explain that they were rich because of government subsidies, and that that the food they grew, cheaper because of government subsidies, competed with the food farmers in developing countries grew, both within their own countries and in developing countries, and how this meant that his well-off ‘brothers’ in the West were actually contributing to his and fellow farmers in developing countries’ poverty. How not only that, but the ones in the West were also part of campaigns to the public to ask them to buy produce only from their countries, therefore contributing even more to developing country farmers’ poverty.

Well, after his proclamation of happiness, I couldn’t spoil that for him. But I just wished, hoped, that the very same ‘brothers’ he were genuinely happy for at least spared a kind thought for him at least once in a while.

September 4, 2013


Filed under: Computers,Economics,Geekery,Hippiery — zarazilla @ 10:57 am

As an environmentalist, an economist, a computer scientist – I’m a bit obsessed with efficiency.  I just wanted to write a little bit about how I think about efficiency from different points of view.

Perhaps one of the things that divides a programmer from a computer scientist that programs is that a computer scientist will strive for efficiency.  They’re going to try to use the least processing power and the least amount of memory (you could say it uses as few resources as possible), because that makes for an efficient program, which means that it runs as quick as possible.

In the field of economics ‘efficiency’ takes on a slightly different meaning – an efficient society is one in which no one could be better off without making someone else worse off (this is called Pareto efficiency).  It could also mean that you get the greatest amount of benefit from a single unit of cost (you can’t get anymore output without any additional input).  If you think about it, that’s what a computer scientist does – they try to use the least amount of resources to do get the result they want.

I try to live my life efficiently – the greatest amount of well-being from the least amount of discomfort/time, and this sometimes overspills to friends and family – say I want that last slice of cake but I know I don’t want it as MUCH as my boyfriend does; but he is trying to be nice by letting me have it.  I’d prefer he has it because our total joy would be larger.  On the other hand, if I’m sure I’d enjoy it more, I’ll let him know how much I’d like it and, unless I’ve underestimated how much he wants it, I usually get it. :)

As an environmentalist, we must completely be mindful of efficiency.  In our lifestyles we try to be efficient to produce as little waste as possible and to make as little impact on the environment as possible.  In bigger considerations we want to be efficient in how we spend our energies and the budgets for environmental conservation.  An idea might sound good but actually cost a lot and produce very little benefit, while another idea could produce a lot more benefit with less cost.  A good example of this is climate change mitigation – it might sound like a good idea to place solar power panels on every available surface you can find, but actually the cost of producing the panels, in both energy and monetary terms could probably be better off going into building a better public transportation system which will remove cars off the road.  That’s just an example, by the way.  I’m sure there are more efficient ways to use energy and money.

Lastly, my favourite comic offering on efficiency: SMBC addresses the best use of Superman.

*For those of you who are not familiar with the field of economics, we measure benefit not by monetary terms  but by well-being.  It’s just that for the most part it’s actually kind of difficult to measure well-being, so we use monetary terms as a proxy.  Of course a lot of things are missed by looking at just hard currency, and these things are called ‘externalities’.  Environmental economists attempt to measure these externalities through a number of different methods.

August 30, 2013

Why are smartphones so expensive? (and why they’re about to get a lot cheaper)

About 3 years ago I finally gave up carrying a Nokia-brick equivalent around and acquired my first smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S1.  3 years later and it’s pretty much asking me to put it out of its misery.

So I’ve been looking around and considering my options.  The new Samsung Galaxy (the S4) 16GB will set me back about £500 from a reputable store (and there are many fakes going around, so you want that reputable store),  and lets just set that as the benchmark as I’m sure the iPhone 5 is more expensive and I think the HTC One is too.  That’s a lot of money for a jobless person, but luckily I have much cheaper options.

For instance, picking up a 7 inch tablet instead, such as (to stick to Samsung for a fair price comparison) the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 16gb which ALSO MAKES PHONE CALLS and retails for £310.

In other words, the  Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is a 7 inch smartphone which is 65% the cost of it’s 5 inch counterpart.  Which one might consider a bit strange, seeing as it has 2 inches more display, albeit probably slightly crappier specs than the phone, including a non super-amoled screen and crappier cameras.

But then again we might imagine that miniaturization costs more, hence why the 5 inch phone is more expensive than the 7 inch tablet.  But then… if that’s so how come the Samsung Note II costs more than the normal sized phones?

So not knowing much about the cost of parts and miniaturization and random technologies here’s my take on what’s going on here.

  • The cost of the highest end smartphones have always been high (some say the costs of them are coming down but the S4 costs today what my S1 cost 3 years ago).  Similarly, when the first tablets came out, they were also very costly.
  • Then in the middle of 2012 Google came along and crushed the market* with the very affordable Nexus 7 at £160 for an 8gb and £199 for the 16gb.  To put this in context the iPad 2, which had already been succeeded by the iPad 3 was still retailing for £329 without 3G (these are prices I pulled off an email discussion with my sisters talking about which tablet to get my Dad for his birthday)!  This instantly made tablets a lot more affordable while installing an ‘anchor’ price on 7 inch tablets.  Competitors had to stick to the general area of this price or customers would just not give their product a second glance.
  • So now we have very expensive smartphones** and very cheap tablets.  While before there was some overlap between the markets, they were pretty much separate markets, so it was okay.  But now tablets have the ability to make phonecalls… which I foresee many customers whose phones have come to the end of their lifespan (such as myself) switching to the 7 (or 8, thank you Samsung) inch tablets (and a bluetooth headset) instead of getting a much more expensive smartphone.

This means that the smartphone market will start experiencing a high customer dropout which means that demand will fall which means… in about a year or two our smartphone prices will drop to tablet prices or even lower.

That’s my guess anyway.  And why I’m going to be trying to prolong the lifespan of my already tortured S1.

*How did Google make such a low cost tablet? Well I’m guessing there was some economy of scale/using lower specs but mostly they just sold it pretty much at cost.  Now why they did that is another topic for discussion… but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with taking tablet market share from Apple. This guy’s theory sounds good, anyway.

**So following on from the above asterisk, yes, smartphones are probably so expensive because you, or enough people, are willing to pay them that much, and therefore manufacturers are probably making pretty large profits off of them.


Oh are you still reading?  I also want to say something real quick about customer differentiation! That’s what companies do when they’re trying to get the most money out of each customer.  As you know, everybody has different preferences and also different willingness to pay for things.  So say someone with a lot of money is willing to pay a lot for the highest end product because it looks good and probably functions pretty well.  Someone with less money is probably going to spend a lot more time researching their options and weighing up what they get versus what they pay.

So I’m thinking the technology companies have done something like this.

  1.  Rich customer/customer who cares a lot about their tech/Customer who wants to look hip with the latest high-end tech – High-end smartphone AND high-end tablet (costs lot, big margins)
  2. Poorer customer who just wants a smartphone or tablet – low-cost smartphone OR low cost tablet (pretty cheap, small margins)
  3. Savvy customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (bigger) budget – High-end smartphone
  4. Savvy poorer customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (smaller) budget – Low-end phone tablet

March 9, 2010

Data visualisation

Although I’m at work, I figured I could do a really quick post about this to reinforce the point I am about to make: Data visualisation is awesome!

My friend Frank sent me a link to the Public Data Explorer at Google Labs, saying he figured I’d like it as an economist.  He was right!  I watched  the bubble graph visualisation embedded in the front page about three times…. the first time just because I was curious, the second time because the first time was over so quickly and random things had caught my eye, and the third pausing and retracing to check who those little outliers bouncing off to the sides and back again were about.

Try it! You can pause at any point and hovering over each bubble will tell you which country the bubble represents.

So in the space of about 5 minutes I had been able to pick out the devastating effect on average life expectancy that the civil wars in the 70s in Cambodia and Timor-Leste had, and the insane genocide in Rwanda in the late 80s/early 90s.  You can also see the South African countries moving out to the left in the late 90s – average age expectancy falling undoubtedly by the spread of AIDS (although the drastic fall in Zimbabwe’s life expectancy may be a bit more than that!).  In recent years however you can see that some of them are coming back up.  Is this due to better medicine to treat AIDS or a fall in victims?  We don’t know, but the data can tell us where to look.

In a nutshell, data visualisation is great for quickly picking out anomalies in data and telling us where to dig deeper.

Now please excuse me as I should get back to work as well as satisfy my curiosity by looking up why the fertility rate in Guinea-Bissau plummeted in the 60s!

December 23, 2009

RSS feeds – Shared Items

Filed under: Economics,Personal — zarazilla @ 11:47 am

After talking too much about my RSS Feeds last night, I realised a good complement to the post would be to introduce my Shared Items. I use Google Reader to manage my RSS feeds and it allows me to share posts. As I read through my feeds I typically share posts I think are interesting, relevant, or fun. I also attempt to write little notes on why I think particular articles are interesting.

As I mostly use my feeds to keep me current in my profession, it is heavily slanted towards the environment and economics.

I don’t know whether it will be of much interest to anyone, but you can access it via this link and I have also put it on the side as (very creatively) ‘Interesting articles from RSS feeds’ under ‘Other’.

April 12, 2009

MMOs for Economics research

Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. I can’t claim this idea for my own, but I was talking to some guy called Ian while at EnvEcon. Unfortunately I didn’t pick up his last name but he is currently a masters student on Imperial College’s Environmental Technology course and speciailising in Environmental Economics and Policy (yes, the same course and option that I did).

Anyway, he mentioned the idea of testing out economic theories in Second Life. Which, when I thought about it, sounded like an absolutely astonishing idea. Obviously there would be many caveats, a few of which I will discuss, but, unless someone can point out something I am missing, it seems like an stonking good idea. Data from everquest and WOW has already been pulled for study by social scientists ( ), so it is perhaps only another step to design economic experiments in Second Life.

The obvious caveat would be that second-life characters are virtual. Unless you are one of the truly obsessed, the welfare of your second-life character is not going to be as important as your own welfare. Furthermore, the wealth of your character doesn’t (and I am guessing here, I have never played second life or even read that much about it) affect the health of your character. You will also probably take higher risks with your character than you would in your real life. This all said, I know there are people out there who put a lot of time and energy into their online virtual characters, which may change reduce these issues somewhat if you could somehow cherrypick your players.

Then there are the moral implications – if you design an economic experiment in second life, do you have to tell the players? If not, are there moral implications in the fact that people are participating in an experiment without knowing it? If you do, will this change behaviour due to Observer Effect?

Then there are the socio-economic factors in play. Who are the people playing second life? My guess is that the majority of the population is made up of young/middle age (Late 20s to 40s) people, probably middle class, and probably at least slightly geeky. This will undoubtedly affect the decisions they make for their characters.

Links: Article talking about whether Second Life’s economy is in recession – Showing that yes, Second Life does have an analysable economy.
Google search for second life economics

Having said all this though, I think it is a very interesting concept and lots more thought should be given to it. Perhaps social scientists and computer scientists can get together to build a MMO specifically designed to carry out social experiments and selectively invite people to play with a bit of cheap talk*?

Comments, discussion?

(H/t Tom for first coming up with the articles on social scientists data mining MMORPGs).

* Cheap talk is used in suveys that ask participants how much they are willing to pay for a service or a good to get more realistic amounts. This is achieved by saying something along the lines of “In these kinds of surveys many people say they are willing to pay more than they actually are willing to pay. Please think carefully before stating your amount, evaluate your finances, and ask yourself whether you really are willing to pay the amount you state”. In this case, of course, it would be something along the lines of “Look, we know this is a game, but pretend the outcomes really affect you, and act accordingly”.

April 11, 2009

Payments for Environmental Services Peace

(Before reading this note, if you are not familiar with payments for environmental services, you may want to look at this link )

I was watching the February 10th episode of The Daily Show last night (my friend pointed out the reason we know more about american politics than British politics is that Jon Stewart makes it worth knowing about) and his interview for the night was with Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco ). You can find the interview here.

During the interview, Stewart and Ricks talked about how the Americans, or rather General Petraeus, decided to pay the Iraqis; not just the allies, but the people trying to kill them as well, in order to… well, get them to stop trying to kill them.

In actual fact, during the interview, Ricks tells an ancedote about how an american soldier turns to one of the insurgents and says “You still want to kill me?”, to which he replies “Yes, but not today”.

Now is it just me or does this remind anybody else about payments for environmental services, but instead of environmental services, for peace? It has never crossed my mind that people who may be trying to kill people would actually have a willingness to accept to change their behaviour. The situation even addresses continual payment (so long as you keep paying me, I will not cut down this lovely rainforest do not want to kill you today).

Of course an interesting question here is “how are the insurgents using this money?” Another interesting and related question is, “What does this money substitute for?”, and question that is related to both of these questions is “How much can the americans pay or what can they do to permanently change insurgents’ behaviour?”  Is the money they’re paying them “Giving a man a fish” rather than “Teaching him how to fish”?

April 10, 2009

“Risk – averse”

Filed under: Economics — zarazilla @ 7:27 pm

I’m starting to hear the words ‘Risk-averse’ a lot these days and I’m wondering how the recession we are (most of us) in has affected people’s risk perception? And how permanent is it? I recently read a comment to a blog post or article about Madoff which said “Now I know why old ladies hide all their money under their mattresses”.

So I’m wondering how this is affecting research in social sciences like economics? In about 10 years from now would researchers have to explain crazy data with recession anxiety? Would we still be seeing the effects in ten years, would data before the recession be significantly different to data after?

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