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Ecological Intelligence March 31, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, sustainability.
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I just finished Daniel Goleman’s “Ecological Intelligence”. So I thought I would pen (finger) a quick review/affirmation/rebuttal. The basic idea is that we are entering (perhaps) the age of “radical transparency” in the marketplace. An age in which consumers will know about the good and bad impacts of every product they buy–health impacts, environmental impacts, and social impacts. Armed with this ecological intelligence, 10% of consumers will switch to “responsible” brands even if they cost more, while another 75% will switch to “responsible” brands assuming cost neutrality. This will create a virtuous cycle in which companies compete not only on product quality and price but also on environmental and social stewardship. With the market now having stake in environmentalism, utopia will ensue!

Goleman is optimistic, but not quite that naively optimistic. He points out that environmental and social responsibility is already a mission for many companies and that there are fledgling services for providing impacts information on a B2B basis (Earthster) and at point-of-purchase (GoodGuide). But also that there are many challenges to creating such a radically transparent market (the amount of information you need to gather and collate is mind-boggling) and many questions about the scope and scenarios in which such a market would actually “work.” Presumably, there are large numbers of people in the world who are in no position to make purchasing decisions based on anything but cost. And presumably, there will be certain products and services which, by definition, will require disproportional damage to the public commons.

Anyways, I think that a ecologically transparent marketplace will be a good thing and will make the world better. I just don’t know that it’s enough. There are those who say that it is the market that created the climate change, environmental toxicity, and social imbalance and so it is the market that can most effectively fix these problems. But there are also those who say that the market has already proven it cannot deal with “commons” in a non-abusive way and that the most effective way to incorporate a commons into the market is to privatize it. Let us privatize the environment then. On a more serious note, I think that marketplace transparency can be effective in improving corporate social responsibility, and that it can potentially be effective in producing more sustainably derived, healthier to use products. But I think it is quite limited in what it can do to improve global environmental condition, specifically global warming. A transparent marketplace will allow people to choose low-footprint products over high-footprint products, but I doubt it will make them take the best choice–fewer products! That a pair of jeans requires 2100 gallons of freshwater to produce (cotton is very thirsty) is only part of the problem. The bigger part is that many people have ten pairs of jeans when in reality they only need 5. Or 3. That cars average 19.8 mpg and spew 1.2 lbs of CO2 per mile is only part of the problem. The bigger part is that people drive so much. Will GoodGuide help us buy less? Drive less? Live more responsibly? I doubt it. Only a realistic non-subsidized price on goods like water and CO2 will make us do that.

P.S. BO, what is this? If you want to throw Republicans a conciliatory bone, tell them that you will pick up Mike Steele’s tab at Voyeur’s. But lifting the ban on new offshore drilling is not going to accomplish anything positive (except for reduce the price of gas by an average of 2 cents starting in 2026) while perpetrating all sorts of damage to coastal environments and perpetuating habits we need to break! Say it ain’t so, BO!

P.P.S. Goleman also wrote “Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence”. Given my current emotional and social state, maybe I should put those on my queue as well.

P.P.P.S. In other news, it’s been the wettest March on record. This couldn’t be because there is too much moisture in the air because of excessive oceanic evaporation because it’s too damn hot, could it?

A Good Climate/Energy Bill? March 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, Uncategorized.
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If you were to ask the average Joe (e.g., Joe “the plumber”) or Sarah (e.g., SarahP) what the most important issue facing the country today, he or she would say “jobs” (if they didn’t have a job) or “health care” (if they had no health insurance or inadequate health insurance), “immigration” (if they were white and lived in Texas/Arizona/New Mexico/California/Colorado or if they were here illegally), “national security” (if they just saw or read about the Moscow subway bombing), DADT (if they are a hater) or “inability to see Finland from my house” (if they were SarahP).

But the real answer, the right answer, is climate change and/or clean energy interchangeably. Politicians usually deal with short term disasters like (e.g., housing market crashes, failure of “too big to fail” financial institutions) and some medium-term problems (e.g., impending bankruptcy of Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security). They are less apt to tackle long-term problems like climate change, preferring to defer those to future administrations which will be forced to meet them as they reach medium- and short- term status. And this is not just politicians, this is humans. We simply don’t respond to slow incremental change for the worse in the same way that we would respond if that change were abrupt.This is why Dan “Stumbling on Happiness” Gilbert says that climate change is happening too slowly. If it happened faster, we would be more likely to do something about it.

We don’t respond to slow change because evolution hasn’t selected and wired us (or our amygdala) for it. But fortunately, it has given us a frontal cortex which allows us to sit back, analyze, and take rational action. And any rational analysis shows that we can’t really afford to wait to do anything here. Unless we do something relatively drastic in the relatively near future, the effects of climate change will not only make actual living less physically pleasant or tolerable than it is now, it will exacerbate each and every problem we feel acutely today. The economy? Conservative estimates are that nations will have to forfeit 15-20% of their GDP to mitigate direct effects of climate change. Health care? Global warming will push malaria and other currently “tropical” diseases to latitudes and altitudes which are now temperate and free of these diseases. Immigration? Rising sea levels will displace the entire population of Florida, not to mention Bangladesh and about 50% of the population of China. DADT? I guess climate change will not have an impact on that. Although maybe it should. Maybe if climate change affected DADT, Republicans would become more interested in it.

But now there is hope. Maybe. After the health insurance bill, and the jobs bill, and the upcoming bank reform bill, could we actually have a climate and energy bill? And would this bill be any good? I am going to write more about this as more information comes out, but here are the preliminary details of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman clean energy bill. There is a useful side-by-side of this bill, the House ACES bill, and POTUS Obama’s proposal. The best thing I can say about KGL is that it includes a “linked carbon fuel fee” which sounds a lot like a carbon tax. Neither the Obama nor the Waxman-Markey bills contain any mention of a carbon tax, they are both pure cap-and-trade proposals. I am a big proponent of a carbon tax (if you have read a recent post, you know I am in favor of any vice tax) over a cap-and-trade system which I think will be too complicated to enforce, and not very effective at changing consumer lifestyles and behaviors. A “professional” environmental activist told me just this weekend that a carbon tax has “Absolutely zero political legs. None. Negative.” So for now, I will have to satisfy myself with the KGL language which probably isn’t a carbon tax but at least sounds like it could potentially be one. I am sure I will write more about carbon tax in a future post. The thing I found saddest (although I guess that is a relative term) is amount of projected overall investment: $100bn over 10 years according to POTUS, $150bn over the same in WM, and TBA in KGL. Anyways, really people? $150bn? That’s it? $940bn to insure 32mn uninsured Americans and only $150bn to save 300mn Americans from hell on earth? $1tn (is that trillion) over 10 years to save us from imaginary Iraqi WMDs but only $150bn to save us from multiple future Katrinas? $182bn to save “too big to fail” AIG and only $150bn to save the planet? Perhaps the planet is not too big to fail! Hey, we’ll always have Jupiter!

Anyways, expect to hear a lot more from me about this in the coming weeks.

P.S. An American would never do this. Either of it.

P.P.S. On the advice of aquaman 2.0, I have switched routines to 1000 meters followed by 10 100-meter sprints. So far, so good. Although I might be hooking up with a “total immersion” trainer soon.

P.P.P.S. What is the Vegas line on the number of days left in Mike Steele’s RNC chairmanship? 4.5? Give me the under.

Meat Is MRSA March 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in food, football, science, sustainability.
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I am quite proud of the title of this post. It’s a play on words and a homophone in one. Actually, Murder and MRSA are not homophones, they are more like semi-homophones (hophones?) or cadence-phones (caphones?), or semi-homo-cadence-phones (hocaphones)! Anyways, if you have just eaten or are about to eat or generally have an overly sensitive gag-reflex, you might want to skip this post. Just enjoy the title.

Still here? Good. You know what meat is. That’s right, it’s the stuff that animals are made of. The stuff they wouldn’t be made of if we weren’t supposed to eat them. You know what MRSA is? Methicillin (Multidrug) Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus. Or in English, antibiotic-resistant Staph. I don’t know what you know about MRSA (and I am not a physician so I technically don’t know that much about it either), but basically it’s a slow-moving flesh eating (technically, it’s “flesh necrotizing” or “flesh killing” bacteria) that doesn’t respond to a large class of antibiotics, including most that end in -icillin. Treatment for MRSA involves either massive doses of advanced antibiotics (although there are some strains of MRSA that have adapted to resist those), surgery, and maggot therapy. That’s right. Like in Gladiator. Despite these “medical” options, 18,000 Americans die from MRSA each year.

Historically, MRSA has largely been confined to hospitals–places that use a lot of antibiotics and have many people with open wounds–and the Cleveland Browns’ practice facility. But MRSA is “in the wild” now. Specifically, there is a strain of MRSA that infects cattle and can jump from cattle to humans. I heard on NPR last night from MRSA-lady (the woman who wrote the book “Superbug”) that there are multiple confirmed reports of this new strain jumping from cattle to their CAFO handlers. MRSA-lady also said that while there are no confirmed cases of contracting MRSA from infected meat, it is technically possible to do so, specifically by handling the meat with your bare hands. MRSA will not survive either cooking or the acid in your stomach, but it will transfer by skin contact.

If you’ve ever read “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlossberg or “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, or seen “Food Inc.” by Schlossberg and Pollan, you know that few creatures are more pathetic, disgusting, or more morally objectionable than industrial cows. Industrial cows are almost nothing like real cows. They don’t eat the same things (real cows eat grass, industrial cows eat corn and also chicken and dog), they mature about four times faster, and they are near total system collapse by 18 months, just in time for the meat-processing factory. CAFOs–the industrial operations that produce industrial cows–are essentially concentration camps, only worse. The very least we could do for industrial cows is to install them with Matrix-style bio-ports and at least give them the illusion that they are having anything like a normal life.

I stopped eating red meat about a year and a half ago. In truth, I could have kept eating red meat from non-industrial free-range cows and bison, but I decided to go “cold cow.” Ha! You didn’t think I had a sense of humor, did you. I didn’t do it for health reasons, although I did have “high” cholesterol at least by the 2008 definition of high and probably still do. And I didn’t do it for animal cruelty reasons, although fewer animals have an artificially shorter and more cruel life than an industrial cow. I did it initially because despite our best efforts, industrial cows are still relatively inefficient at converting calories of grain to calories of meat. They do so at a rate of about 7:1. Chickens? About 2:1. Chickens just make more environmental sense than cows. Oh, and they don’t fart methane either. And yes, I know that industrial chickens are not much better off than industrial cows and in fact may actually be worse off.

That decision looks better and better all the time. Industrial cows eat corn and grain (and chicken parts) which is an inefficient use of the global food supply. We could feed more people and feed them better if we ate less red meat and ate the grain directly. Cows produce methane, which is 20x more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2. Counting everything, meat animals (mostly industrial cows) contribute more greenhouse gases than cars.  And now, they are also training grounds for various bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance. Evolution can be a bitch!

P.S. And China’s move in the Google vs. China chess game is this. Well, it was either that or all 1.3 billion Chinese people standing on a chair and jumping down all together on the count of 3.

P.P.S. Why not? I would vote for you. Well, I don’t live in Massachusetts but I would trade votes with someone who does to vote for you.

P.P.P.S. Did you hear that Russia eliminated two time zones? They had 11, now they are down to 9. I think the US should eliminate Mountain time. Nothing happens in that time zone anyways. And this way, West coast baseball games would start at 9pm and end at midnight on the East coast. Either that or we should just go to “continuous” time. I mean, with GPS it is possible.

Update Menagerie March 24, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in family, politics, society, sustainability.
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Just a few updates on some previous. Some are new events, some are new thoughts, and some are feedback from others too lazy or shy to use the official comment feature, but neither too lazy nor shy to use email. Hey guys, email is forever, just like blog comments! Just ask the University of East Anglia Climate Science group.

Regarding the taxation of vices to raise revenue and change consumer behavior, it appears that new health insurance bill includes exactly such a vice tax: a tax on indoor tanning! Perfect! Actually, indoor tanning is both a vice and a vanity. And the possibilities for vanity taxes are nearly endless. Elective cosmetic surgery. Fur coats. Tattoos. Piercings and other bod-mods. Jewelry. By the way, did you know that the environmental impact of gold mining is a significant fraction of the environmental impact of all mining because of the low concentration of gold in ore (high yield gold ore has one ton of gold for 200,000 tons for ore, in constrast high yield iron ore has one ton of iron for 2 tons of ore) and because of the use of cyanide leaching to extract the gold. But back to the list: Haircuts. Deodorant. Twitter. The mind reels.

Regarding super-sized refrigerators, my friend Ani, formerly of Bulgaria, informs me that “during communism, refrigerators were small and at the grocery store, you were not allowed to pick fruits and vegetables.” See? Communism wasn’t all bad! We should embrace the good aspects of communism (small refrigerators) rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Of course, there are some in this country that think we are adopting the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, and the healthcare. But, hey, if it comes with smaller refrigerators and less food waste, I’m in. As for not being allowed to pick fruits and vegetables, I assumed what Ani means is that you were allowed to pick what kind of fruits and vegetables you wanted, but weren’t allowed to hand-pick the precise instances of the kinds of fruits and vegetables you wanted. Now that I think of it, markets in Israel were this way also when I was growing up. And not that I am advocating a return of top-down vegetable allocation policies, but really what is the marginal difference between allocated vegetables and hand-picked vegetables? 10%? 15%? And wouldn’t this margin be lower when you factor in that disallowing hand-picking not only disallows you from hand picking but also disallows all the other people that came before you and their unique blends of microbes from hand-picking? Sometimes increased freedom is not such a good thing. Anyways, I will have to fact check this with my father, also formerly of Bulgaria and Israel.

Regarding the corporate “school bus,” my mother (hi mom!) says that back in the day (it was a Wednesday), many Israeli companies operated their own shuttle service because few people owned their own cars and only one out of every three households had their own camel. Ah, the wisdom of the ageds! What goes around comes around! What once was lost now is found! Old is new! Corporate camels coming to a neighborhood near you!

Regarding my personal inspiration, Donna Simpson has been bumped by that bozo from Alabama who claims to lead an army of 1 milllion gun owners who are cleaning their guns right now and whose name I can’t seem to be able to Google or Bing for the life of me.

Finally, according to my daughter, one of the Seven Dwarfs of Snow White fame is Sleazy. Not Sleepy. Not Sneezy. Sleazy! How spot on. And really, aren’t all seven dwarfs sleazy? How else would you characterize a bunch of old men cohabitating with the fairest one of all? Speaking of the Seven Dwarfs, it used to bother me to no end that the story is officially called “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs“, even though the plural of “dwarf” is “dwarves.” Well, guess what? “Dwarves” is the plural of the mythical creature “dwarf” whereas “dwarfs” is the proper plural form of the real-life short-person “dwarf.” I guess that can mean only one thing, the Seven Dwarfs were actual people! Who knew? Now my rage at the mis-spelling of Dwarfs has been replaced by rage at the term “dwarf” itself. Real dwarfs don’t like to be called “dwarfs,” they prefer little people or LPs (a la Little People, Big World of TLC fame). If the Seven Dwarfs were indeed real people, shouldn’t the story be called “Snow White and the Seven LPs?”

Staple My Fridge March 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in food, society, sustainability.
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One of the most shameful statistics I have read about recently is the 91 billion pounds (41 million tons) of food Americans throw away annually. That’s enough food to feed Canada. If the sheer waste of calories and nutrition is not bad enough, consider that food that ends up in landfills produces methane (CH4), which traps 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide (CO2). It is estimated that 10% of all anthropogenic methane is the result of food waste. I am not sure how other countries rate on the food waste scale, but I would hazard a guess that America leads by a comfortable margin, both in terms of food waste per capita (although perhaps some other Western country is even more profligate) and gross domestic (although perhaps China or India waste more total food by virtue of having four times the population, although somehow I doubt it).

What an embarrassment. And what an opportunity. Just imagine what would happen if we could cut down food waste by 50%. We would have 20 million tons of excess food to either feed under-nourished Americans (and yes, there are many of them despite the obesity epidemic), to export, or G forbid to contribute to the World Food Bank. Consumers would save money by not buying 50% of the food they might otherwise throw away. And anthropogenic methane would be cut by 5% with a proportional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

How do we do this? Self control? RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for the unwashed)? Eat more leftovers? I confess, 50% of what I eat is leftovers. I love leftovers. It’s my second favorite food category. Right after “food.” But how about this for an idea? Smaller refrigerators! The average residential refrigerator has a nominal capacity of 20-22 cu. ft. and an actual capacity of 15-17 cu. ft. I have not done a longitudinal study, but I believe that like our houses, cars, waistlines, and LDL levels, our refrigerators have gotten bigger over time. In 1922, the first commercial refrigerator had a capacity of 9 cu. ft. (Incidentally, it cost twice as much as a car did in those days). Capacity increases may have been abrupt, but more likely they were gradual. You know, like glacial melting.

Alright, maybe that is not a good example. But my theory remains. Most people have more refrigerator than they need. “And if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t realize that you are like most people”. (one of my favorite quotes, courtesy of Daniel Gilbert). In addition to consuming more energy and kitchen real-estate, having more refrigerator than you need tempts you and gets you accustomed you to buying more food than you need. After all, a half-filled refrigerator is a pretty sad sight. And there is the probably the latent misconception that buying more food than you need now simply means delaying having to go to the store again. But that’s wrong because refrigerated food is refrigerated for a reason–it spoils otherwise. Buying more food than you need now means either eating more food than you need or throwing away more food. And really, which one is worse?

One of the recently popular solutions for drastic weight loss is bariatric surgery, i.e., having your stomach stapled to reduce its capacity. I myself sometimes joke that even that would not work for me and that what I actually need is to have my mouth stapled instead (that would actually kill two birds with one staple). But maybe what we need as a society is to have our refrigerators stapled instead. Try this for an experiment. Take a piece of cardboard and duct tape it over the bottom shelf of your fridge, thereby reducing its capacity by 20-25%. Try this for a couple of months and see if your eating, shopping, and food waste habits change. For the better. If they do? Hey, take another piece of cardboard and tape it over the second shelf!

I don’t do Facebook anymore, but maybe one of my three readers does and can start a little social experiment! Oh, and if you find yourself buying too much food while you are getting used to your new smaller fridge, you can send the excess to Donna Simmons.

P.S. Does having a blog make me a narcissist? I hope so. I need some narcissism (and some other big words) in my life.

Baby Killer March 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in drama, politics, society.
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The house health insurance reform bill passed last night, 219-213. Ending the truly evil practice of coverage termination or denial due to pre-existing conditions. Allowing young adults to stay covered under their parents’ plan until the age of 26. Helping small businesses buy health insurance for their employees. Temporarily saving the Obama presidency. Oh, and providing health insurance for 32 million currently un-insured Americans. By 2019. And there was much rejoicing. Especially by Nancy Pelosi.

This bill, which must still clear some hurdles before it becomes law, has elicited some venomous response from right, right-center, and even center. Ten states are planning a federal lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. And this includes Pennsylvania. Which has a Democratic governor! Come on, Ed, you’re jeopardizing your chance for a night in the Lincoln bedroom! But the most famous sound-bite of this episode has to be  “baby killer“, shouted by Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) while Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) was explaining that he was voting for the bill in exchange for an executive order retaining the current limits on federal funding for abortion. In a brilliant rear-covering stunt, Neugebauer claimed that he was referring to the deal between Stupak and the White house as BK, not to Stupak himself. Of course, this doesn’t make any sense Stupak is anti-abortion and the deal maintains the status quo regarding abortion funding. I wasn’t calling you fat, I was calling your reflection in the mirror fat! But that’s not important. It sounds good!

But here’s what doesn’t sound good. The fact that such a deal was necessary to pass the bill in the first place. Some media outlets will have you believe that the deal was in fact not necessary to pass the bill, it was only necessary to pass the bill by a sufficient margin to protect vulnerable Democratic house members from being labeled as the “swing vote on the health insurance bill” by their Republican opposition come November. I’m sorry, but does anyone actually believe this? I’ve seen bigger cushions in a monastery! The deal was needed to pass the bill at all and that’s really sad.

There is a lot of hypocrisy and self-righteousness in this country. No issue makes these rear their ugly head like abortion. Not immigration. Not even gay marriage. And no recent incident illustrates this better than the Stupak amendment. You see, it’s the same people who want to protect the rights of an unborn child on one hand who don’t want to give that child health insurance on the other. America, 99% of the civilized world has gotten over the abortion issue, legalized it in all reasonable cases, and … moved on to more important problems! The only countries in which abortion is illegal are either predominantly Catholic, predominantly Muslim, or predominantly Neanderthal. And I don’t know this for a fact but I imagine that no political party in any country plays the abortion card as often and as heavy-handedly as the GOP. Similarly, I imagine that in no other country do politicians hold their own party hostage over this issue like we do here in the US. People, we have real problems to solve! Jobs, education, energy, climate change, immigration, health care for G’s sake! Federal funding for abortion is not one of those problems! Can we please let this abortion thing go so that we can make some progress on real issues?

P.S. In other news, wow! I can’t wait to see the next move in this game.

Corporate School Buses March 17, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, sustainability.
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I heard on NPR yesterday that Washington, DC has jumped to #4 on the list of most-traffic-bound US cities after LA, NY, and Chicago with the biggest problem occurring in the Northern Virginia suburbs. It’s actually gotten where people are turning down jobs in the area and businesses are moving out. One anecdote was of a woman who spent an hour and forty-five minutes in traffic on the way to her first day at work. She called from the car and resigned before she ever got there. Of course, Virginia is running a budget deficit right now and a combination of political timing and pure finance is making investments in public transit infeasible right now. Not that an investment in public transit would provide relief in the short term anyway. Unless the particular form of public transit was buses and buses are slow and generally not convenient. Except there is one form of bus transit which is pretty convenient–the school bus. A school pick you up close to your house and takes you right where you need to go. And while you are riding, you can relax and socialize with friends from school. Of course, school buses are a form of public transit. But why are there no (or few) private corporate work buses?

Say you are a medium to large sized company with a semi-rigid work schedule. How much would it cost you to run your own bus/van pool to transport some significant subset of your employees–the ones that can’t reasonably get to work using public transportation and the ones that don’t live in faraway areas isolated from other employees–to and from work every day? Wouldn’t that make your company a more attractive place to work? Wouldn’t that improve your employees’ QOWL? It wouldn’t eliminate their commute. In fact it would probably make their commute a little longer (if for instance they were the first stop on the pick-up route). But it would eliminate the stress of driving and replace it with a chance to relax and socialize with co-workers, which is probably good for the company anyway. It would be like car-pooling, but on a larger scale and company-organized, operated, and funded.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be company funded. I currently pay $8 a day to park at my workplace. I would gladly pay $8 a day for someone to pick me up at a spot within a few blocks of my home and drive me to work. Heck, I would pay a premium to save on stress, gas money, and maybe even the need to own a second car. And don’t you think that a company could get a tax deduction for an expense like this? Or maybe a carbon credit or six assuming we ever install a carbon cap-and-trade system? And what about the free advertising on the side of the corporate vans? And savings from reduction in on-site parking capacity? The company may even get a little something from the city just for reducing congestion. And this isn’t just for large employers either. Smaller employers at the same complex could band together to support an efficient system like this.

Think this is a nutty idea? I worked at Intel in Haifa (Israel) in 2000. The site had about 1,500 employees at the time and they had a van-pool system like this. It was free, and I gladly availed myself of it. I am sure that some US companies have this sort of thing although Google searches on “corporate transit”, “corporate van pools”, and several other permutations of “corporate”/”company”/”transportation”/”carpool” didn’t turn up anything relevant (maybe I should have used Bing?). But why isn’t this commonplace? Come on people, isn’t this a no-brainer? Or alternatively, is it not a no-brainer? Or alter-alternatively, is it a brainer?

P.S. My new inspiration, Donna Simpson!

Flight of the Penguins March 15, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, society, sustainability, transportation.
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Have you seen the movie “March of the Penguins?” You should. If anything, it will convince you that the last animal you want to come back as in your future life is an Emperor Penguin. After the penguins mate and females return to the sea, the males are left for five months to incubate the eggs in the only safe and semi-warm place they have–on the tops of their feet. What did you think I was going to say? The temperature is -70 (what’s the HTML for degree?). I don’t know whether that’s -70 Celsius or Fahrenheit, but does it really matter? To maximize warmth (and I am using that term loosely), the penguins huddle together in a big circle and because it’s warmer on the inside of the circle, they rotate perimeter duty. If the egg should fall off the feet during the rotation, the male has about 4 seconds to pick it up before it cracks and the chick inside dies. Needless to say, unless you’re the Penguin equivalent of David Beckham, you’re toast (or the anti-particle of toast). And you should see the look on a penguin’s face when this happens. You would think that it’s difficult to express anguish if you have a beak instead of a mouth. You would be wrong. Of course, female penguins don’t exactly have it easy. They have to march out 100 miles back to the ocean on those tiny little penguin feet and come back with “food” for dad and baby. Mostly for baby. Should something happen to the mother along the way–oh I don’t know she gets eaten by a sea lion–dad and baby die. It is really difficult to believe that a species would go these evolutionary lengths just to avoid competition. Yet there they are.

I find all birds fascinating. Can you tell by the name of this blog? But I find penguins especially so because they gave up the ability to fly. They had it. And they genetically “decided” they were better off without it. They were better off standing in -70 degree weather for five months with an egg on the tops of their feet than flying. And so are we. Well, not the -70 degrees part. Or the egg on the feet part. But we are better off not flying. Or at least flying less.

I read an op-ed in the NY Times recently in which the writer complained that airlines are alienating their primary constituency and only true cash cow (the business traveler) by charging for erstwhile free “amenities” like checked luggage, extra leg room, and in-flight meals. Business travelers–many of whom have to fly on the cheapest possible ticket and cannot expense upgrades–are now choosing to drive routes they would otherwise fly. I think the example was Boston to Pittsburgh, i.e., something long-ish but certainly road-trip-able. My response? Great! Way to go airlines! Go airlines go!

Aside from owning and operating your own cement plant or CAFO, flying is about the most environmentally unfriendly thing you can do. Flying is the most energy-inefficient mode of transportation. This is especially true for short-range low-altitude flying which must burn more fuel per mile to overcome higher air densities. Here is a page that shows that driving any reasonable car alone over pretty much any distance produces less CO2 than flying in a full plane over said same distance, with the relative advantages of driving increasing the shorter the distance. Presumably, the crossover point is Boston-Sydney. In that case what you should do is drive from Boston to Tierra del Fuego, take the slow boat to Perth, and then rent a car and drive to Sydney.

I’m being intentionally ridiculous because the whole argument of business flying versus business driving is ridiculous. What about business Skyping? The norms of business travel developed in a pre-high-bandwidth-Internet world. Why is so much business travel necessary in the current world? A few weeks ago, I was at a technical program committee meeting at the O’Hare Hilton. 44 of us flew in for what essentially was a 10 hour flame-session to decide which 42 of 245 submitted papers would appear at a conference in June. How different would the set of 42 papers have been had we done a conference call instead? 5%? 10%? By definition, they wouldn’t have been more than 57% different, because 18 of the selections were effectively decided before the meeting. And so what if the final set was 10% different. Trust me, it is just as likely to have been 10% better as 10% worse.

Who would actually fly these days unless it was either absolutely necessary or to some exotic destination like the O’Hare Hilton? Almost everything about flying is a giant pain in the ass. Flying itself. TSA checkpoints. Airport parking. Even buying a simple ticket on Orbitz requires clicking through 28 screens to decline everything from cancellation insurance, to rental car, to rental car cancellation insurance, to attraction tickets, to attraction tickets cancellation insurance. I predict and hope for a future in which we fly significantly less. And when we do, we will be forced to go through security naked, through a -70 degree airlock, balancing a egg on our feet.

No Teacher Left Behind March 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education.
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Happy Pi day, people!

The Obama administration had a full agenda for year 0 (I’m a computer scientist and we start counting at 0. In case you don’t know why and are curious, it’s because the address of an array in memory is the address of its first element. Get it? Never mind). Anyways, TARP, Fannie/Freddie bailout, the stimulus bill, Afghan troop surge, health insurance reform, fending off filibusters, Ben “60th vote” Nelson, and Joe “party of one” Lieberman, trying not to laugh when saying the words “tea bagging” and “cloture” (a word I actually used at a recent faculty meeting). Despite an effective Democratic minority in the senate, year 1 is looking similarly ambitious. Health insurance reform, fending off filibusters, “60th vote” Ben, “party of one” Joe, and “perfect game” Jim Bunning, a jobs bill, and now … sweeping education reform!

The primary aspect of this reform appears to be a reorientation of the preverse “No Child Left Behind” law that was one of 43’s first gifts to this country. I have read a few things about NCLB including that it spawned a practice in which schools would encourage weak students to stay at home on standardized exam days to raise the school’s average score. Lovely. The Obama/Duncan proposal would rephrase NCLB benchmarks from “measuring absolute student performance relative to grade level” to “measuring student improvement” and rephrase the end goal from “proficiency in reading and math” to “graduate from high school ready for college or a career.” Wow! I can’t wait to see the “ready for college or a career” standardized test. I hope it’s the Wonderlic.

Strangely, business leaders are cheering. Not so strangely, teachers unions are grabbing their torches and pitchforks. The Times piece didn’t cover this explicitly but I sincerely hope that “measuring student improvement” is code for “measuring teacher performance” and more significantly “rewarding and/or penalizing teachers based on that performance rather than based on seniority.” Performance-based employment and compensation is the teacher’s union worst nightmare. But it’s a necessary component of fixing the education system. Data that was recently released by Teach for America shows that a good teacher can teach students as much as 1.5 year’s worth of material in one year whereas a bad teacher can teach as little as 0.5 year’s worth of material at the same time. In other words, the difference between a good teacher and a bad one is a year’s worth of material per year. Quantitatively, the difference between having a good teacher and a bad one, is in absolute terms, the difference between having an average teacher and not going to school at all! Our education system will be infinitely better off if we could cull the lowest quartile of teachers and pay the remainder according to their performance. And this means paying the top teachers high-five/low-six figure salaries independently of seniority. If you have been teaching for three years and you have demonstrated the ability to consistently raise your students’ abilities 1.5 grade levels per year, you should be rewarded accordingly! Performance-based employment and pay is the norm in every successful enterprise. And it’s the only way to attract better talent to education. I am not saying that there aren’t talented teachers in the system already. There are. But these are people with rare passion and high pain thresholds who are succeeding despite the system, not because of it. The people who are succeeding because of the system have mediocre talent and a do-the-minimum attitude.

Unions are not inherently evil and collective bargaining is a useful mechanism in many industries, but teacher’s unions should be forced to accept individual teacher evaluation and performance based employment and pay, hopefully in exchange for a larger salary pool. If they refused, they should be locked out. And if kids don’t go to school for a year, so what? Going to a school with bad teachers is not that different than not going to school at all. If this happens, I would consider becoming a school teacher myself! I am pretty sure that there is something in the Obama/Duncan plan along these lines. Here is a wonderful article that describes all of this in much more detail and eloquence.

Of course, the other necessary component of fixing the education system is decoupling its financing from local property taxes. But that’s a different post.

P.S. Good news, nano Bloom Box may be on the way!

P.P.S. 2,500 meters in 61 minutes.

P.P.P.S. And finally, here are this week’s viral videos from CNN. Two things about this. First, the guy doing a handstand on his index fingers (second clip). Second, Josh Levs (the VJ) was my freshman suitemate in college. I hope he’s as proud of that fact as I am.

Asia’s Double Tragedy March 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, China, society.
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I apologize to my lone reader for the six day post hiatus. I was “vacationing” with said reader and our children in WDW, i.e., DisneyWorld. I could write ten different posts about WDW, and I might, but for now let me just say that WDW would be much less crowded and much more pleasant if entry requirements included the company of at least one child under ten.

I am half-way through my experiment of reading four books simultaneously: Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, John Brockman’s “The Next Fifty Years”, Max Brockman’s “What’s Next”, and Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball”.  “Next” is my nightstand book, “Basketball” is my bathroom book, “Next 2.0” is my travel book, and “Crowded” is my downstairs chair book. I was going to do a giant joint book review, but “Crowded” and “Basketball” are much longer. Also, I’ve spent more time traveling and sleeping the past few weeks than sitting downstairs (ostensibly working) or going to the bathroom. And so here is a mini-review of “Nexts”. Briefly, 1.0 is a collection of essays by the leaders of individual scientific fields (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Roger Schank, Rodney Brooks) about their visions for their respective fields in the year 2050. It was compiled in 2001. This being 2010, none of the predictions have come 20% true yet as far as I can tell. Although I did learn the fascinating fact that the human genome contains only 35,000 genes, fewer than the genome of a potato and many other “simpler” life forms. 35,000 genes? That’s all it takes to make a human? What the hell took so long? 2.0 is a collection of essays by scientific wunderkinds, 75% of whom received their PhDs after I received mine, about their current research. By the way, the editor, Max Brockman, graduated from Penn in 2002, a year after I started working there.  I learned several things from this book. First, there are many brilliant young people in this world (well, at least 20) and some of them spend their time thinking about truly nutty things. Second, dropping people from a height of 15 stories into a net is accepted methodology in neuroscience research. Third, humans would be much better off if we adopted the same caste-like eusocial structure that ants and bees do. And fourth, Max Brockman is John Brockman’s son. Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall from the tree at all.

Speaking of eusocial societies, it appears that some Asian countries notably China and India are slowly moving towards this model with a small number of child-bearing women surrounded by armies of men, some of which get to mate but most of which perform work for the benefit of the colony. If you think this is a joke, you should read the lead article in last week’s The Economist. It is awful. But you should read it anyway. People should occasionally read awful things because awful things exist and should be acknowledged. Asian societies–and perhaps societies the world over–have long preferred sons to daughters. Sons can help more on the farm. Sons receive rather than give dowries. Sons stay with their parents and support them in their old age. Sons can grow up to play in the NFL. Historically, the only ways to affect this preference have been abandonment and outright infanticide. And these were morally objectionable enough that their incidence was low and the boy to girl ratio stayed about even. But increased availability of early-pregnancy sex-determination via ultrasound has opened up a much more morally palatable option–sex-selective abortion. In some northern India provinces there are now 130 boys born for every 100 girls, with doctors advertising “pay 5,000 rupees now (for the ultrasound) save 50,000 rupees later (for the dowry)”. In China, the ratio is 123 boys to 100 girls driven by boy preference and the “one child policy” and its variants. In some Chinese provinces, a couple is allowed a second child if the first one is a girl and in most provinces a couple is allowed two children if both parents are only children, effectively making “one child” alternate generations and strangely giving only children incentives to marry other only children.

I am pro-choice and certainly pro-family planning. But I consider the selective-abortion of hundreds of millions of girls to be a human tragedy. It’s actually a double tragedy. For every girl that never will be, there is a boy that will grow up alone. By 2020, there will be 30 million Chinese men age 20-30 with no prospects for marriage, family, or a path to social acceptance. In China, there is a name for these men–“bare branches.” There will be tens of millions more bare branches in India. South Korea. Singapore. Armenia. Georgia. And likely more to come in lesser developed country as ultrasound technology spreads there. In 10 years, there could be 100 million single young men in Asia. How’s that for a recipe for social unrest?  You think young Chinese men are frustrated and restless because they can’t perform politically subversive Google searches? Try seeing how frustrated they get when they can’t find anyone to have sex with! China is definitely going to have to uncensor porn then! Some way, some how, the cultural Asian boy preference has to end. Or eventually, they will have to reproduce by cloning. The good news is, it may be starting to. The bad news is, for this generation of “bare branches”, it’s already too late.

What’s a blog post without a P.S.? My cats’ “Temptations” treats have “Free Range Chicken Flavor.” Not just “Chicken Flavor.” “Free Range Chicken Flavor.” I don’t know whether to be amused or insulted. What premium am I paying for this luxury? And do my cats, who otherwise eat stuff that looks and smells like vomit, actually appreciate the difference?