Work and pleasure, arts and science

One can dream up uncountable categories in any profession, of course, but among academics, and perhaps especially among economists, two types stand out for me: the athlete and the artist/entrepreneur.

Athletes want to be the best in whatever competition they perceive to be in. Rankings are all that matters: all admiration goes to those in the Top 3. Athletes have a strong sense of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’: you want to associate with people who are ‘in’ because they publish in all the cool journals, go to the cool conferences and some of that coolness may someday rub off on you. Like real athletes, these academics choose their game, learn the rules, and try to be really good at it. Does this field require me to eschew interdisciplinary research, and prove difficult mathematical propositions? Then by heck I’m going to be the best at it. An athlete is another athlete’s competitor, first and foremost: if other athletes score he cringes his teeth in jealousy and swears to beat them in the next game.

Artists/entrepreneurs want to make a good product. A product is good if they themselves think it is good (the artist) or if it is good enough for a sufficient number of people (the entrepreneur). Artists/entrepreneurs don’t choose games or follow rules: they invent their own game, their own rules. When other scientists produce a great product, like a highly original paper, an artist/entrepreneur is eager to read it, and learn from it. Where athletes are driven by a constant comparison of themselves with others, artists/entrepreneurs are intrinsically motivated: they want to make something they themselves can be proud of.

Fiddle Tunes and IIFET

I have a lot more affinity with artists/entrepreneurs than with athletes – no surprises there. The current system in academia is largely geared towards athletes, with its emphasis on journal citation scores, H-index, and university rankings. This worries me. Athletes may be rule-followers, they are also more likely to cheat – just witness the doping scandals in bicycle racing and other sports. Rule-following also kills creativity – an essential ingredient of science.

IMG_4434 smallI had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the importance of creativity and inventing your own rules in science in the past three weeks. The first week of July I was at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. It was an overwhelming experience to immerse myself in the music and hospitality of all the folks at this beautiful spot on a peninsula at the Puget Sound. One of the highlights was an improvisation workshop by bluegrass fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves. I don’t want to give away too many details about what we did (perhaps to preserve the secret but actually just because the truth is too embarrassing), but an important lesson that scientists might want to draw from it is that to get out of your comfort zone you should not take yourself too seriously!

DSC00089_smallAnd then there was the conference of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET) in Seattle, in the third week of July. It was my second IIFET meeting but I’m sure it won’t be my last. One of the things I like about IIFET is its broadness, including not only economists but also policy scientists, sociologists, and people from NGOs and the fishing industry. Where the environmental economics conferences can feel like a gathering of athletes, IIFET is the place to go for artists/entrepreneurs. I was also excited to hear that 2020 will see the second edition of MSEAS, a conference on marine social-ecological systems, in Japan! The first edition, in Brest in 2016, yielded what must be the first comic in a peer-reviewed journal – another example of how art and science can make a happy marriage. More of that please!

Secrets of a fiddle

Perhaps the old fiddle can teach the new mandolin a few tricks

No musical instrument evokes a sense of mystery like a fiddle does. (The difference between a fiddle and a violin? A violin is usually in tune.) For a guitar you can go to the nearest instrument shop to buy a Taylor or a Martin. For a bagpipe or a hurdy-gurdy you order one from a maker after shopping around at the Le Son Continu Festival. I recently bought a beautiful A-type mandolin from a maker in Breda, The Netherlands after trying it out at Gooikoorts. And all those instruments have proper brand labels on them that are protected by international law. You hardly find the kind of counterfeiting you see in the clothing industry.

Don’t believe the label

I have no idea, however, where my fiddle comes from, who made it, who played on it, or how old it is. I bought it from a fiddler in the Irish music scene in The Netherlands who had bought it on a flee market – or so he said – but I have no idea where that was or from whom he bought it. There is a small label inside saying “Anno 17 [blank] Carlo Bergonzi fece in Cremona”. Carlo Bergonzi was a world famous violin maker, famous for being the finest apprentice of the great Stradivarius. He is also famous for the numerous fake labels in violins with his name on them. So I’m not exactly inclined to take the label very seriously. Millions of violins were made in the region now known as Germany and the Czech Republic with such labels, apparently because they were modelled after Bergonzi’s design. So I guess my fiddle is one of those.

Wait – that wasn’t me

So how old is this fiddle then? I am no expert in this, and I know you should never trust the internet (at least that’s what I tell my students), but a little browsing here and there brings me to a range between 1870 and 1940. That is a long time. Still, it’s an intriguing idea that this fiddle of mine is probably at least 76 years old – older than both my parents. Who played it since? What did they play on it? Surely it was not all high-brow classical music, considering that it is not exactly a high-brow instrument. For folk music it’s perfect: it is fairly loud, especially with the steel strings I usually put on it. But recently I changed strings (I am looking for a somewhat warmer tone), and while doing so I noticed the wear marks on the fingerboard under the D string (see picture). Note how they go all the way up to the body of the fiddle. This is where you get when you play third position or higher. I never play third position, especially not on the D string, so I’m sure it wasn’t me! All music I play (Irish, Dutch, and French traditional music) is in first position. And I’m so bad at it I can’t even play vibrato, let alone higher positions! Playing in the second or third position is more common in gypsy music though, as well as in some east European traditions. So perhaps a gypsy fiddler earned his daily bread with it, or it was a classical violin player after all.


MSEAS Brest: My impressions

Tonight is my last night in Brest after an intensive and massively enjoyable conference on Understanding marine socio-ecological systems: including the human dimension in Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (MSEAS). It’s been one of those events where you soak up loads and loads of impressions, which take time to digest, which I just did today in the magnificent Oc√©anopolis – I figured that would be an apt place to reflect on the human dimensions of marine management. So here are my thoughts.


MSEAS did much, much more than the average economics conference to stimulate debate and to provoke creative ideas. I much enjoyed the open and creative atmosphere that brought together people from fields as diverse as biology, economics, and anthropology. As far as I have seen in all discussions people were very open and respectful to each other’s views. Which is different from what I have seen in some of the more disciplinary or conservation-oriented conferences. Oh, and getting a cartoonist capture the sessions was an excellent move. He was not just funny, he actually contributed to the debate and gave us fresh new insights. More input from artists next time please!

Beth Fulton on people’s trust in models

Boy, do I envy this generation of young researchers working in this field. The Young Researchers Workshops gave them the chance to pose questions to more experienced researchers in the field on all kinds of issues. (I felt to old to ask a question and too young to answer one.) I wish EAERE had this when I did my PhD!

From the presentations and keynote lectures I got the overall impression that there is a particular need for social indicators (other than economic ones, and employment), analyses of governance and institutions, and further integration of the whole range of issues in analyses and assessments. The topics were clearly skewed towards fisheries, which is a shame given the growing importance of other sectors, but also understandable given that this was an initiative by people within the ICES network. I was somewhat surprised to notice that there was not a single cost-benefit analysis, especially considering that the OECD’s Ocean Economy report explicitly calls for more cost-benefit analyses of ocean management.

Shame she wasn’t there second
time I visited the Océanopolis

I was particularly enthusiastic about some of the qualitative research that shone a new light on economic analyses. Edwin van Helmond presented an analysis of Dutch fisher behaviour where interviews with fishers helped resolve a number of puzzles in the data that statistical analysis could never have solved. Matthias Kokorsch presented the results of a series of interviews he did with Icelandic fishers on the effects of the tradable quota system in that country.

Slow sessions are just not my thing. I went to the Sunday session in the Tara Inn: there were loads of people, the atmosphere was great, but the music just did not appeal to me. It’s not the pace: there’s nothing wrong with playing a bit slower if you can’t keep up with the standard speed. In fact it’s better than playing above your level! But the playing was sloppy. Luckily I did get the chance to see some of the local traditions at the very last evening at a Fest Deiz!