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This Will Change Everything May 29, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, politics, science, society, technology.
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I have just finished reading “This Will Change Everything” edited by John Brockman. It’s a collection of 125 short essays—where short ranges from one sentence to about 2,000 words—that respond to the question “What game-changing event or technology do you expect to live to see?” This question was posed in 2008 on edge.org and the respondents are the leading thinkers of our time. Some of them are recognizable (Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Roger Schank, David Gelernter, Craig Venter). Others are not. About 110 had interesting things to say. And about 120 write incredibly concisely and elegantly. Or maybe that’s Brockman airbrushing.

I’m not and Edgie, but if I were asked, I would have answered with one of the following: i) we would (accidentally) create a conscious artificial intelligence that will quickly take over the world a la Skynet or the Program Smith—although I don’t actually think this will happen, ii) global warming will significantly change the face of the planet likely for worse, iii) the United States will elect a Jewish lesbian president from the Green Party, perhaps Rachel Maddow if she converted and switched party affiliations, or iv) the Eagles will win the Superbowl. I guess options number one and two were obvious, because some of the actual respondents went with them. Shockingly, no one chose doors three and four.

A little commentary about the actual responses. The most common theme by far was radical human enhancement including enhancement of the brain. I counted 17 essays on this topic. If I expanded the criteria just a little to include understanding and not strict manipulation, the number would have been 22. Juan Enriquez went so far as to call his essay “Homo Evolutis”, the continuously and consciously evolving species. Someone else predicted humans will be significantly more varied as a species than we are today. Who knows, maybe some of us will be 20′ foot tall, blue, with carbon-fiber skeletons and USB tails able to jack in to other forms of life. My favorite in this category was Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster who predicted that we will genetically engineer ourselves to be physically much smaller so that we consume fewer resources and that a human society that numbers in the billions becomes sustainable. Runner up was Alison “Scientist in the Crib” Gopnik who wrote that we will be able to maintain or even reintroduce high degrees of brain plasticity and therefore be able to stay in a childlike “intellectual sponge” state for significantly longer and maybe indefinitely.

Another high-frequency topic was contact with extra-terrestrial life. Eight entries here. I agree that this will change things, especially if this life happens to be technologically superior to us. But it’s far down on my list because I just don’t think it will happen. We might—I repeat might—via spectroscopic analysis discover the signature of life on some distant exoplanet, but making meaningful contact with this life will be nearly impossible. We will not establish actual “contact” with it.

There were five or six essays about Artificial Intelligence that will rival or exceed human intelligence. I am a computer scientist by training and so I am a little more familiar with this than I am with some of the other predictions. And I am skeptical. Real intelligence requires constructive models for semantics, i.e., what things mean, not just what they are. This is obvious and I am not sure how close we are to a computational equivalent of this. Maybe we are a few decades away. But I also think that real intelligence requires consciousness—it seems hard to be truly intelligent without being conscious—and that real consciousness requires emotion—this also seems plausible—and I am really not sure how close we are to having computational models of emotion. I don’t think we are anywhere near something like this. To me, the more interesting essays were the five or six about human-machine interfaces. Evidently, a few people see this coupling as becoming much tighter in the next half century, including the ability to upload ourselves into our avatars and to live forever in silicon. As long as we don’t live forever in Silicon Valley.

Climate change. Six essays and I’m cheating because I’m including essays about future attempts and successes at controlling climate. Sadly, this—the change part—is about as safe a prediction as we can get. We are already locked in to some pretty significant changes. Progress on the CO2 emissions front is alarmingly slow. Progress on the ice sheet melting front is alarmingly fast. Unless some serious geo-engineering takes place between now and when I die—NASA? hello?—I expect to see some serious shizz.

Six people foresaw personalized universally accessible education as the game changer. Amen.

Another five or six essays about the defeat of aging and chronic disease. Various estimates of average 2050 life expectancy in the developed world were 110, 150, and “essentially infinite”—given financial means—courtesy of the ability to replace and regrow arbitrary body parts.

A few of my favorite singletons. Discovering one or maybe more of the Klein-Kaluza additional dimensions of string theory—talk about “Fringe,” I hope in other other dimension I’m a Navi and “Fringe” is a better show. Carniculture—growing meat artificially rather than harvesting it from animals. Universal communication—jagshemash! Human-animal hybrids like the Island of Dr. Moreau—personally I would like to be hybridized with a dolphin. Also, I was disappointed that nobody suggested human-plant hybrids. And I don’t mean half-man/half-tree. Wouldn’t many problems be solved if humans could photosynthesize? Back to the list. Post-rationality—I think I’m already there. The need to bring the not-quite-developing world up to Western standards—triple Amen to that. Massive computer failure—oh no, whatever would happen to Bluejay? Detection and suppression of malevolence genes. A return to illiteracy as video replaces text. And finally, the notion that we just might become satisfied with technological progress and shift our collective focus from advancement and aggrandizement to enjoying our finite execution quanta—kumbaya.

There were about four or five essays I found completely incomprehensible. I couldn’t even parse the sentences. The one I could parse and found least interesting? Proving the Riemann hypothesis. Really? That will change everything? Name one thing. Seriously, the Eagles winning the Superbowl will change more lives.

P.S. The US patent system has several problems: it’s too easy to get certain kinds of patents, it’s too easy to artificially extend the lifetimes of certain patents, the patent review process itself takes too long—at least too long relative to technology advance—and patents are generally written and reviewed by non-experts but then attacked and defended in court by experts. But the biggest problem is that patents do not come attached with plain English extended abstracts that practitioners in the field can understand. I am supposed to be an expert in some field and I have quite a difficult time reading patents in this same field! What does this say about me?

P.P.S. Unreliable sources tell me that Bluejay was number 42 on this list.

P.P.P.S. Or not.

P.P.P.P.S. A must read if you’re a sports fan. Or even if you’re not. What is it? Bill Simmons guide to the Russian billionaire who bought the New Jersey Nets.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I am putting “The Black Swan” on my reading list. Not just because of the topic, which is fascinating, but because of Nassim Taleb’s obnoxious website, which is just as fascinating if not more so. I’ve just spent 45 minutes chasing down links on this thing.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Are we at a new record for (P.)+S.? I don’t know. I will have to go through the archive.


The Effects and After Effects of “24” May 26, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in society, television, Uncategorized.
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A few days ago, I heard an NPR interview with Kiefer Sutherland. The topic was the upcoming nine-season—eight television seasons plus one season when the show had to be suspended because Kiefer was in the pen—finale of “24.” One of the people interviewer Robert Segal quoted—I forget who this was—called “24” the “signature show of the Bush administration” and the “single most significant factor in the American public’s relatively new acceptance of torture as a military and counter-terrorism tool.” For the last nine years, 24 times a year, the American public sees Jack Bauer save the United States from immediate ruin using information obtained by what would surely be classified as torture. The American public, perhaps believing that “24” is a TLC reality show in the style of “Little People/Big World” or “Jon and Kate plus Jon’s 19-year old Girlfriend minus Kate,” come away believing that the CIA or FBI or Homeland Security—or whichever federal agency or sub-agency CTU is supposed to represent—routinely tortures people and routinely obtains reliable relevant information as a result. Or perhaps it’s nothing that sophisticated. Perhaps just regularly seeing torture on prime time network television—for whatever reason—desensitizes one to about torture, suppressing the gag reflex, and deprecating torture from something which is unspeakable to something which is both speakable and watchable on prime time television. Of course, Sutherland’s answer was expected. He essentially said that “24” was more a reflection of the post 9/11 world than a driver of it and that if it took several elements to the extreme, it was justified in doing so because everyone understands that “it’s just a television show” and “violence equals ratings” and “come on, it’s just a television show.”

Yes, we get it. “24” is (was) “just a television show.” And it wasn’t a very good show, either. I admit I used to love it. I have only enough attention to watch one show per season and for a few seasons—4 and 5?—”24″ was it. I watched the first two seasons on DVD also. In parallel with season 5 I think. But when the show took a year off, I switched over to “Fringe”, itself not the best of shows with no less tiresome acting, but with a more interesting plot than “24” at least. I mean, how many separate times can someone’s daughter be kidnapped in one 24 hour period?

Yes, “24” was not the best show. And it glorified torture and violence a little too much. But the twisted glorification of violence and torture was full on even outside “24.” Witness the whole “torture porn” film genre exemplified by the Saw series. As well as the GPU-enabled increasingly graphic nature of video games. “24”‘s bigger problems, in my opinion, were a cast of characters that changed by the minute as seemingly central players kept getting killed off—other than Jack you couldn’t get attached to anyone, not that you really wanted to get attached to Chloe—blatant abuse of techno-babble—really? it’s possible to download sattelite photos to a PDA over a secure link in under a second?—and its depiction of US President Charles Logan as an outright criminal. On second though, maybe “24” was the signature show of the Bush administration.

I will say this for “24” though. In addition to desensitizing America to torture, it also desensitized to the notion of having an African American president. I really believe that without “24” Barack Obama would not be president today. The country had to see it on television first.

P.S. Gregg Easterbrook has something to say about “24” also.

P.P.S. As if I didn’t like LEGO® enough already. Now I find out that they are manufactured to a tolerance of 2µm so that they can snap together tightly but still be pulled apart without excessive violence or torture. 2µm! The Intel 486, shipped in 1989, used transistors with a 1µm channel length. LEGOs are manufactured to roughly four times the tolerance of circa 1990 microprocessors! You can probably run Windows 3.1 on LEGOs!

The Birthday Problem May 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, economy, society, sustainability.
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No, not the classic birthday problem in which counter-intuitively the chances that any two of 30 people share a birthday is 73%. I’m talking about the problem with actual birthdays—the presents! And more specifically the packaging of children’s toys!

First, a little context. Yesterday was my son’s fifth birthday. For those of you who haven’t had the experience, I should tell you that the best thing a man can have—other than a wife like Mrs. Bluejay of course, hi dear—is a five year old son. Young enough to still be sweet and innocent and to want you to hold him. Old enough to catch a mini-football, build LEGO®, and wipe his own ass. If I could stop time—without being frozen inanimate—I would do it right now. Bluejay Jr., you’re the orange of my eye. With a side order of curly fries.

Anyways, yesterday was the small “family” birthday. The larger, more chaotic “school” birthday is in two weeks. I don’t remember why we decided to have it this way. I plead temporary insanity. The small gathering limited the number of presents, but it still took a solid 30 minutes to unwrap, extract most of the toys from their packages, and install a set of batteries. Anyways, let me start—what? you thought I had already started? I had not—by poo-poo’ing the general concepts of birthday presents themselves. Who decided that everyone who knows you must give you a gift to reward you for having been born? Why do you deserve a reward for this? Was being born really so hard? If anything, on your birthday, you should be the one giving gifts to others, for providing you with the structural and social environment that allowed you to grow into the greedy little bastard you are now! I believe that in some societies, this is how birthdays are handled in fact. Although a quick Google search reveals nothing. I am not sure where the tradition of birthday gifts started, but I am sure it has similar origins to Christmas gifts, Valentines Day gifts, and gifts associated with other arbitrary celebrations, namely as a line item in some long forgotten economic stimulus bill. It’s a wonder that ARRA didn’t include several new Federal and personal holidays complete with gift requirements! I have always been embarrassed by birthday gifts. If you want to give me a gift, donate to a charity in my name. Buy a third-world family a goat! A touching, hand-written card is good too!

Back to the birthday instance at hand. Let me begin by saying—I am beginning right now, for the record—that most children’s toys are worth little. The best toys are LEGO®—by the way, we were at the zoo this past week and there was a life-sized polar bear made of LEGO®, as well as tamarins, a frog, a snake, turtles, and a few other things. They were made over five months by a professional LEGO® sculptor. I wonder what the going rate for one of those is and whether there is a computer program that can translate a photograph to LEGO® construction instructions. But I digress—jigsaw puzzles, books, and TransformersTM. If it doesn’t improve spatial pattern recognition or fine motor skills, or if it doesn’t expand the mind or engage the imagination—or if it doesn’t transform—I have little use for it. Jigsaw puzzles and LEGO® also have the benefits of coming in minimal packages, a cardboard box with a plastic bag or two inside, that are rectangular and easy to wrap! Doubly so for books! Bluejay Jr. got a jigsaw puzzle. And a book. And LEGO®. He also got a auto-transforming Optimus Prime, a Power Ranger with motorcycle, a large-sheet coloring book, a HotWheels car and trailer, and the world’s nuttiest remote control trick vehicle.

The Optimus Prime came in an oddly shaped box. Mostly rectangular but tapered at the top and with a strange un-necessary kick-out to one side at the bottom. The box itself was one piece of cardboard that was internally folded and taped like Origami. Honestly, who designs these things? It took me a good five minutes to undo the Origami and flatten the box so that I could then recycle it. Optimus was embedded in molded PET—thin and crinkly but still indestructible, just like recent drink bottles. And not only was he embedded in the PET, he was actually secured to it by ultra-strong twist-tie/electrical-wire. In five places. This I don’t understand. The PET is needed to prevent jostling during transport. But the PET was molded around Optimus. You had to almost peel it off. What additional security do the twist-ties—which are quite difficult to untwist—provide? Do they ensure that an adult is needed to extract the toy? Are they a theft deterrant? Are they political pork thrown the way of United Twist-Tie Workers of China? The mind boggles. The Power Ranger and world’s nuttiest remote control trickster were similarly attached, but at least they came in a rectangular, non-Origami boxes.

The HotWheels car/trailer/car combo came in a long rectangular cardboard box. Inside the box was a hard clear plastic case and a black plastic base—almost for museum or collector-type displays. Is that what these are for? Can they not be sold separately then for the benefit of people who want to display their HotWheels cars rather than play with them? Are they for protection during transport? HotWheels cars are cast metal! You can run one over and not damage it other than maybe slightly bending an axle! To make matters worse, the car and trailer were screwed to the plastic base using four of the smallest non-eyeglass Phillips-head screws the world had ever seen. And car number two was screwed to the trailer in similar fashion. Again, I ask you—for what? Theft deterrance? Child proofing? United Phillips Screw Workers of China Full Employment Act?

I know that WalMart is pressuring its suppliers to reduce packaging—say what you will for behemoths like WalMart, but it can be a significant market force when it wants to—so these gifts were obviously purchased elsewhere. Why are other retailers not demanding reduced packaging as well? And why are reductions in some aspects of packaging—thickness of cardboard and PET—offset by the addition of Origami, tape, screws, and twist-ties? Is there a natural law of conservation of packaging? Perhaps the whole tradition of birthday gifts is not the brainchild of toymakers, but rather of the cardboard, PET, battery, twist-tie, and tiny Phillips screw industries. I have read—and I believe this—that a sustainable future for the planet will require a somewhat reduced standard of material living for the currently developed world. But maybe we won’t have to give up so much material. Maybe most of what we have to give up is the packaging.

P.S. I saw a Bluejay on Friday. It was on a lawn to my right as I was stopped at a light. I took a bad picture of it with my iPhone. It was the first one I have seen in Philadelphia in about three years. Maybe global warming is a hoax after all!

P.P.S. Speaking of trick vehicles, if you haven’t seen Stanford’s autonomous car backspin into a parking spot, it’s worth a look. For my money, this video would have been more impressive if the orange cones would have been replaced with orange Porches, but that’s getting greedy. The interesting thing about this is that the onboard computer is only partially calculating the maneuver using physics simulations. It’s getting the other part from “past experience”, i.e., different steering/breaking combinations and the resultant spins. “Last time I was moving this way and steered that way, this was the spin and it looks like the kind of spin I need to do now, so …” I will not be programming my Prius to do this, but if you have a Prius I could try to program yours.

P.P.P.S. Death by pirhanas may be appropriate punishment here.

P.P.P.P.S. I feel like I need to say something about Elana Kagan, but I can’t figure out what. Stay tuned.

Fix The Senate! (Elections) May 20, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics.
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Specter is out. Sestak is in. At least until November. At that time, he might be out too. Who did I vote for? Not telling.

The final margin was relatively large—8 points. And the victory went against the endorsement of the Democratic establishment, including POTUS BO, The Gov, and many Pennsylvania newspapers. What does this mean? Did the voters get it wrong? Did the Democratic political machine get it wrong? Do Democrats—and people in general—resent being told who to vote for? No. No. And hell no!

The voters voted for their man. Why? Who knows. Maybe they saw Specter’s party-switch as overly self-serving. Maybe they thought Sestak had a better chance to prevail in November. Maybe they got tired of Specter and wanted a new face. Maybe they believed that as effective as Specter has been, Sestak—the darling of the Pennsylvania Democratic committee before Specter switched sides—will be even more so. Maybe they feared that Specter is too old and may not last through another six-year term forcing a Massachusetts-style special election. Maybe they shared a birthday with Sestak. Probably, it was a combination of these things.

POTUS BO pitched for his man. What else could he do? Back the challenger? Please! First, by switching parties, Specter did BO a huge favor, helping to push across much of the legislation of the past year. BO would have looked the ingrate if he didn’t back him. Second, if Specter would have won, BO would have looked the fool and had an enemy in the Senate for the next six years. Heck, he would have had an enemy in the Senate for the next nine months regardless who would have won. POTUS BO was just playing the game they all play. The political machine is all about the incumbents. Until they lose. And then it’s about the new incumbents. The incumbent is dead! Long live the incumbent!

Finally, it’s a common mis-conception that people don’t want to be told who to vote for. People do, in fact, want to be told who to vote for. Just as they want to be told many other things. The mental toll of figuring out who to vote for—accumulated over that of many other decisions—is high. Being told who to vote for by a reliable source is easier. I wanted to be told who to vote for! Thank god the Internet was there to tell me!

But onto the real subject of this blog. And yes, it took me 419 words to get here. Get over it. If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that the Senate is dysfunctional. Structurally, it may have been not such a bad idea 250 years ago, when the largest state (Virginia) was only nine times as populous as the smallest (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations). And it may have been necessary to get Delaware and RIPP to join the union. But with current demographics—California has 69 times the population of Wyoming—it makes less sense. Senators from de-populated states are the most powerful people in the US. They represent a tiny constituency but control key swing votes. And they serve longer terms than presidents with no term limits! The incumbency machine makes Senators from de-populated states de facto kings! And some of them—see Ted Stevens of Alaska or former VPOTUS Dick Cheney of Wyoming—behave as if they were kings!

What is to be done about this? Sadly nothing. A US government in which North Dakota has only one Senator is probably not going to happen. If there is one thing North Dakotans love, it’s their Senators. But perhaps something can be done about the biannual churn which essentially paralyzes the government for six months every other year. Under the current constitutional setup, Senators serve an unlimited number of six-year terms with one third of the members up for re-election every two years. Assuming election season including primaries lasts eight months, then 33.3% of the time, one third of the Senate is in an election cycle. For a body that is effectively so evenly divided—sixty votes is the new majority or haven’t you heard—and in which votes must often be squeezed from the marble columns, that is too much. 33.3% of the time, the Senate is legislating by electoral politics rather than by policy. Don’t believe me? Ask Arlen!

Here’s what I propose. Senate terms should be extended to eight years and limited to a total of three. Senate elections should be held every fourth year, in phase with presidential elections. This means that again 33.3% of the Senate will be up for re-election during a given election season, but elections will occur half as frequently and in step with presidential elections when nothing happens anyway, or at least nothing good. Arguably, the Senate is the most critical governmental resource and Senators are the most powerful people in government. Shouldn’t increase the efficiency with which the Senate legistlates and reduce the effects of electoral politics as much as we can?

P.S. I know, I know. Congressmen serve two-year terms and therefore are locked in re-election battles 33.3% of their time. Isn’t House churn a problem? Shouldn’t we fix House elections too? Not really. First, the House more closely represents US demographics and the artifact of Congressperson-from-de-populated-district-as-king doesn’t really exist. With the exception of a few, e.g.Nancy Pelosi, individual Congresspeople are significantly less powerful than Senators and cannot hold bills or their parties hostage in exchange for pork. Second, districts are so gerrymandered that most incumbent Congresspeople run unopposed. In the 7th district, Brian Lentz—who was not even an incumbent—presumably ran against Terese Touey. Only Lentz appeared on the ballot on Tuesday. Effectively, only 10% of Congress is up for re-election 33.3% of the time. And 10% is usually lower than the margin by which bills pass in Congress.

P.P.S. I’m sorry, but unless I don’t know what a “barrel” is—42 gallons?—this doesn’t look like 8,000 barrels a day to me!

P.P.P.S. The Talented Mr. Ripley he’s not.

Spec-Tak-Le May 17, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics, sports.
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Bluejay fans—hi mom—I will try never go this long between blog posts again. It’s been a busy week and some. End of the semester. A few trips to Washington, DC. Also, this 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle is kicking my ass a little bit.

But it’s time to get back to business, put my thinking hat on—actually I don’t wear hats because someone told me once that they accelerate hair loss—and rant a little bit about Tuesday’s primary. If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you may have guessed that I am a registered Democrat. Actually, maybe you guessed that I am registered with the green party, but you would be wrong. As long as the de facto two party system remains, I will affiliate myself with a party that has a chance at some decision-making power. It’s not a coincidence that I picked Bluejay as the totem of this blog. I would never pick a Cardinal or any other red bird. My only choices were Bluejay, Blue Heron, Bluebird, and Indigo Bunting. But a Blue Heron is not really blue. I’ve never even seen a Bluebird. And Philly Indigo Bunting has terrible cadence. Not to mention the fact that few people would know what an Indigo Bunting is.

Anywhos, there are several Democratic primary races. There’s a “race” for the state house to replace uber-popular current Governor Ed “The Gov” Rendell, who’s prohibited from seeking a third term by state law and who will presumably take a permanent position anchoring Eagles Post Game Live on CSN. Dan Onorato has lapped the rest of the primary field in the polls—although The Gov has endorsed Philly-area State Senator Anthony Williams—but is polling about 10 points behind likely Republican candidate, attorney general Tom Corbett. Doh! In the 7th congressional district—where I live—lawyer-slash-Iraq-war-vet Bryan Lentz is leading political consultant Terese Touey for a chance to go against unopposed Republican Pat Meehan for a chance to replace the retiring Joe Sestak.

But the interesting race and the one that matters most from a political leverage standpoint is in the Senate—isn’t it always? The incumbent is 80-year old 4.75-term Republican and 0.25-term Democratic senator Arlen “Magic Bullet” Specter. The challenger is the 59-year old, 1.5-term congressman and former Navy admiral Sestak. The two are polling at a dead heat, with different polls reporting different leaders and all leads within the 3% margin of error. Many Democratic bigshots including The Gov and New York Senator Charles Schumer have predicted a slim victory for Specter. So who gets the Bluejay vote?

As I see it, the two relevant questions are: (i) which candidate is more likely to beat presumptive Republican nominee Pat Toomey in the general election? and sadly to a lesser degree (ii) which candidate will be a more effective Democratic Senator if he beats Toomey? Let’s start with the former. Sestak is a winner. He whipped Republican incumbent Curt Weldon by 12 points in 2006—I know that was the year of the anti-Bush midterm backlash, but still—and Republican challenger Wendell Williams by 20 points in 2008. And he is polling better than Specter against Toomey head-to-head, trailing by 5 points rather than 9. Meanwhile, Arlen Specter changed party affiliation in 2009 not for ideological reasons, but to avoid Toomey in the Republican primary! But this doesn’t actually mean that Specter is less likely than Sestak to beat Toomey in the general election. Specter reasoned correctly that he is too moderate for the new Tea Republican Party and would not be able to beat him in a Republican-only primary. That does not mean he couldn’t win as a Democrat in a state that has grown increasingly blue. And he has won five of these races before.

As for who would be the more effective Democratic Senator? Specter is a renowned deal-maker and power-player and has been voted one of the ten best Senators as recently as 2006—again the year of the anti-Bush midterm backlash. Despite being a Republican, he has maintained a centrist position over most of his tenure, and has even shifted to the left on social issues. He is pro choice. He is against the hateful Defense of Marriage Act. He voted against impeaching Bill Clinton. He called out the Bush White House on illegal wiretapping of US citizens. And since switching affiliations, he has voted with the White House a staggering 95% of the time! But Sestak is no slouch either. He is an up-and-coming player who House majority leader Steny Hoyer called “the most effective Freshman Congressman.”

Both Specter and Sestak have heartstring-tugging personal stories. Specter survived Hodgkins lymphoma. Sestak’s daughter Alexandra survived the same kind of brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy. Sestak was born and raised in Delaware County, PA, where I currently live. Specter is from Wichita, KS, not far from where Mrs. Bluejay was born. Specter loves football, having given Roger Goodell a talking to regarding the NFL Network. Sestak and I share a birthday. Ay karamba! It’s enough to make Bluejay use third-person self-reference again! Why can’t we send both of these guys to the Senate and ditch Bob Casey?

At the end of the day, it may not matter. Whoever wins the primary may get taken down by Toomey. Who knows, maybe in a year or two Toomey will change political affiliation to avoid a head-to-head primary with the political ghost of Rick Santorum.

P.S. I’m sure you’ve seen these, but I hadn’t until Mrs. Bluejay sent this link. No commentary necessary.

P.P.S. And from the world of sports, I would not have predicted that the NFL would have a player from China before MLB. Who knows, maybe MLB will win the race for the first Indian player. Meanwhile, despite fewer total players—750 to 1696—MLB is dominating the NFL in terms of number of Jewish players. Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun (the Hebrew Hammer), Scott Feldman, Gabe Kapler, Ian Kinsler, Jason Marquis, Scott Schoenweiss, Mike Lieberthal, and 15 years from now, Bluejay Jr. (you heard it here first) vs. Sage Rosenfels, Jay Fiedler (is he still playing?), and Mike Rosenthal (is he still playing also?).

Lather. Rinse. Repeat? May 5, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, environment.
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The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was and will continue to be a disaster. There are no two ways about it. 11 oil workers died. Cleaning up will cost between two and eight billion dollars. Much of the damage that has already done and will continue to be done—stopping the leak will require drilling sideways into the existing well to divert the flow and this will take at least a month—will not be reversed for many years. If ever. Gulf coast communities, human and otherwise, will suffer physically. The Human ones will suffer financially too. BP will bear the bulk of the direct cleanup cost. Fine. It remains to be seen how much of the indirect cost falls on BP. The cynic/realist in me thinks little. Gulf coast residents will bear most. The taxpayers will cover the difference. Don’t worry, it won’t be much compared to the 182,000,000,000 we gave AIG.

As important as the immediate physical and financial effects of the spill, perhaps the more important effects are the political ones, specifically those on future energy policy. Already, several states have placed moratoriums on offshore drilling. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s for the good. However, the other side of that coin is that expanded offshore drilling was presumably to be a (the?) major concession to the right in what I only hope will be an aggressive climate and energy bill. Without offshore drilling to allay their fears about “increased consumer energy costs” (translation: jobs for their states), what new, potentially worse, concession will be required to bring conservative Senators from coastal states aboard?

Here’s what should bring them aboard. The BP oil spill was an accident. But it’s the kind of accident that will probably start happening with greater frequency. Drilling for oil is expensive and there is already talk that BP was taking some shortcuts with its equipment, most infamously by failing to include an acoustic shutoff valve. Is BP the only company taking these shortcuts? On NPR’s Radio Times yesterday, Lisa Margonelli said that the Niger delta—where drilling regulations are more lax—experiences the equivalent of the BP accident every year! The BP accident took place at a well that was gently described as “technically challenging”—the oil is more than three miles below the ocean floor which itself is a mile below the ocean surface and ther rig. Are future drilling sites likely to be more or less technically challenging? Logic dictates that companies explore less challenging locations first and so future drilling is likely to be as challenging if not more so. And finally, are ocean conditions going to be generally less violent and more conducive to drilling or vice versa? Ironically, in part because of drilling, conditions are likely to get worse.

One argument that is strangely dormant in the fossil vs. renewable fuel debate is the increasing risk of disaster associated with extracting fossil fuel. Perhaps this isn’t talked about because the risk is still very low—despite the fact that we have had a both a deadly mine explosion and a deadly oil rig explosion in less than a month, mine and rig explosions are still the exception—and risks that low are seen as “the cost of doing business.” But the costs of fossil fuel disasters, especially oil disasters, are incredibly high. And a low, but non-zero, risk of a disaster with an incredibly high cost is not only a non-negligible average cost, it’s essentially a guarantee that eventually we will experience this disaster and its cost. Yes, wind is expensive and made more so by its own unpredictable nature. But as the BP incident shows, oil can get unpredictable and expensive too. Is any wind farm going to be eight billion dollars expensive? Is any wind farm going to be 11 lives expensive? And yes offshore wind farms kill birds and “ruin” beach vistas, but will any wind farm kill as many birds and ruin as many beach vistas as this accident?

If anything, to me, a spill like this underscores the fact that we need to switch to renewables as quickly as possible. Not only to avoid the chronic and inexorable disaster that is climate change but also to avoid the accidental and acute disasters that are BP. If we don’t, it’s going to be lather, rinse, repeat. Literally.

P.S. God love her, Mrs. Bluejay buys me many books. Almost as many as I buy myself. If you ever feel compelled or obligated to buy me a gift, a good non-fiction book is a safe bet. I am especially partial to social commentary and scientific thought. If you are not sure which social commentary or scientific thought book to get me, just get me an Amazon gift certificate. Or a Kindle. Anyways, one of the best books the Mrs. has gotten me is “What Should I Do With My Life?” by Po Bronson. If you’ve ever asked yourself this question—and let he who has the free hand cast the first stone—you will find this book quite … emotionally liberating.

P.P.S. I know that “let he who has the free hand cast the first stone” is not the appropriate adage there. But I like it and I try to use it wherever it even remotely fits.

Electric Net Neutrality? May 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, economy, taxes.
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The recent developments in the net neutrality battle (see Comcast vs. FCC) and my general interest in clean energy and energy efficiency have led the following idea to kick around in my head for the last few months—does it make sense from both physical and end-goal standpoints to try and enforce some analog of net neutrality on the electric grid? Is it feasible to decouple maintenance and governance of the electric grid itself from electricity production at its edges, thereby opening up electricity production to consumer-facing competition? It appears to me that if this were the setup, then such competition—combined with a price on CO2 emissions—would be the most effective driver of a whole-scale move to clean energy production. Wind or solar clean-energy mini-utility startups would spring up by the thousands and coal-fired power-plants—CCS-enhanced or otherwise—would not survive the twenty-teens. Imagine that you were free to buy your electricity from any provider. Would you buy it from a company that had to pass its CO2 emissions costs to you?

Before I go on—and if you are a Bluejay regular, you know I’m going on—is a neutral grid with consumer-facing competition strictly necessary? Wouldn’t a plain carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system move electricity generation towards clean-energy? Not necessarily. A carbon tax without competition will likely not push a shift towards clean generation, or at least not quickly. Without competition—and many markets aren’t competitive—providers will just pass the tax onto consumers. Consumers in turn may choose to consume less electricity—or to purchase solar panels and water heaters—and the provider may generate less electricity produce less CO2 as a result. And this would be good too. But if the provider were guaranteed some level of consumption, there wouldn’t be much impetus for change. In the absence of competition, cap-and-trade may be similarly ineffective because an unchallenged provider would just pass the cost of CO2 allowances to consumers. Cap-and-trade does have the benefit of a CO2 cap, but providers may choose to meet that cap by producing less electricity rather than by producing additional electricity cleanly if the additional electricity could not be sold at a profit. In a competitive market, providers that did not pay a tax or allowance fees would have a cost advantage they could pass onto consumers. Competition is key. How do we make it pervasive?

For the internet, neutrality means that carriers must treat all traffic equally. Where the rubber meets the road—and where Comcast meets the FCC—they must give equal priority and resource to traffic they don’t profit from as they do to traffic they do profit from. This is the condition in which the internet grew and one of the facilitators of the massive innovation by content and application providers. ISPs charge a monthly fee for access. Content providers duke it out for the rest—sales, payed content, ad dollars, whatever. The problem starts when companies go vertical and provide both access and content, like Comcast. More accurately in the case of Comcast, the problem is when an already vertical access/content company gets into the internet business. Surprisingly, the Federal appeals court recently ruled against net neutrality—actually, it ruled against the FCC’s power to enforce net neutrality—but eventually, net neutrality should and will be placed on a legal footing. And Comcast will either toe the line or have its business broken up into Comcast access and Comcast content. In the electricity business, every company is Comcast. There are no separate electricity content and access providers. Providers provide both content (electrons) and access to it (wires). All companies have a vested interest in selling you their own electricity rather than someone else’s. The electric grid is not neutral because it did not grow up that way. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be regulated into neutrality.

To be sure, electricity is not internet data. Internet data is digital, can be transmitted without loss, and along a variety of media—telephone lines, coaxial cable, optical fiber, airwaves—all of which support wavelength division multiplexing. Electricity requires moving electrons along electrical media, which as far as I know does not support WDM and experiences loss over distance. But this doesn’t matter for neutrality. What matters is that, like the internet, electricity providers and their proprietary grids are interconneted and can pass payload to one another. An electricity provider should not be forced to sell you someone else’s electricity—that may be either impossible or inefficient—but they can be forced to sell you their own electricity at someone else’s price!

Here is the proposed setup. The electricity business gets broken into two pieces— a monthly connection or access fee, and content or usage charges. The access fee is collected by the local provider. The usage charge is collected by whichever provider you sign up with, with your local provider possibly tacking on a small “processing” fee, e.g., $0.0025/kWh. The electricity you get is produced by your local provider, but your contract is with the producer of your choice. The producers simply fulfill each other’s orders as necessary in an electric form of Nader-trading. Of course, producers cannot sell more electricity than they can actually produce. And so initially, not everyone would be able to sign up for green CO2 tax/allowance fee-free electrons. But any and all such electricity that comes online anywhere will be bought immediately—much like it currently is in China by state mandate—and there is nothing like perfectly elastic demand to encourage supply.

What say you, people?

P.S. Temperatures last week in Philadelphia: 60, 40, 50, 70, 90. I don’t think we’ve ever wanted to have the heat on and the A/C on in the same week. Climate change? What climate change?

P.P.P.S. For the past few weeks, I have been working on a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Breugel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel.” I have the sky and ocean part done or about 30% of it. I realized something yesterday that I suppose I should have realized a long time ago—the cuts in jigsaw puzzles are periodic! Entire sections can be exchanged for one another or even checkerboarded. I realized this when I noticed that a 4-piece section of the sky on the right side of the puzzle was slightly off-color relative to its surroundings as was a similarly shaped 4-piece section on the left side. Who knew?

Rouge, Rally, Roundtable, and Ralph May 2, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, economy, energy efficiency.
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Regular readers of Bluejay—yes mom, I’m talking to you—may have noticed a break in the usual post-per-day or two-posts-every-three-days routine. It isn’t blogging fatigue. At least not on my part. Although I suspect my readers—yes mom, you again—are getting somewhat fatigued reading everything that comes from my brain, through my fingers, and to WordPress. To quote the immortal Lenny Dykstra “Reading tires the batting eye.”

So after a ten-day break, Bluejay is back. With a somewhat different sort of post. Bluejay is not “personal” blog a la Twitter or Facebook status update stream. I haven’t use it to report on daily activities and don’t plan on doing so going forward. Bluejay is a dumping ground for rants, diatribes, and other commentary, a chance for me to practice non-technical writing, and a form of release. But I am taking a Twitter-like detour to talk about “how I spent some of my Bluejay vacation.”

Mrs. Bluejay and I spent last weekend and Monday in our nation’s capital. Say what you will about what goes on inside the various buildings of Washington, DC, but the buildings themselves are beautiful. The wide sidewalks and the metro make getting around without a car pleasant. And the radial state-named avenues that occasionally give you glimpses of the Capitol are a nice touch too.

We stayed at the Hotel Rouge, one of the Kimpton eco-friendly hotels. Eco-friendly may make it sound like the rooms are lit by candle and the toilet-paper is yesterday’s Washington Post. But Rouge has electricity, soft toilet paper, complementary wi-fi for Kimpton network members. The only discernable eco-friendly members are somewhat dimly lit hallways and a parking discount for hybrids. Woot! Rouge is optimally located a few blocks off of Dupont Circle and one block down 16th from the embassy of Kazakhstan. Chenqui! Next time you travel, please consider staying at a Kimpton hotel. And please be sure to mention Philly Bluejay.

On Sunday, Mrs. Bluejay and I attended the Climate Rally on the National Mall. The epicenter was a concert stage featuring pep talks by various environmental celebrities and occasional music. The headliner was Sting but we were already back at Rouge by the time he showed up. The rally was not heavily attended while we were there, with nearly a 1:1 ratio of porta-johnny’s to ralliers. The most notable attendees were two women standing naked in a wrap-around shower as part of a PETA display, another man dressed as a polar bear, and two Navi on stilts. Many people walked around with “Kill Vampires” stickers and it took some time before we realized that the stickers were referring to vampire currents which electronics draw even when purportedly “off.” The most interesting part of the rally was the EPA P3 competition tent in which groups from different universities presented Phase I results of their green research projects and competed for Phase II funding. Most of the projects were directed at developing countries and involved gravity only water purification and treatment, or low-tech production of methane—not for release into the atmosphere, for capture and use in cooking and heating as an alternative to wood—using anaerobic digestion from various forms of biomass. Apparently, a mixture of cow and goat dung is especially productive. Who knew! I asked the presenters about adding human excrement to the mixture. They hemmed and hawed and then said that a group at a different university was looking at this. Ha! I wonder whether either group won Phase II funding.

On Monday, I attended a symposium on energy-efficiency organized by the ACEEE. The symposium was held at the University of California, Washington Center—ummm, yes—serendipitiously on the other side of the circle from Rouge. There were talks by Robert Ayres, Marylin Brown, Tom Casten, and several other energy-efficiency notables as well as a panel discussion involving representatives from ARM, Dow Chemical, and Verizon. Did you know that Dow consumes as much petroleum annually—both for energy and for stock—as Kuwait produces? You do now. Every other presentation had the McKinsey mid-range greenhouse gas abatement graphic on it. And I think I was the only one in the room who hadn’t read the actual report. I’m doing it now, by the way. If you look at this grahpic, the most striking thing about it is the “residential lighting” bar, ostensibly referring to CFLs but maybe also to LEDs. People, if we all replaced conventional incandescent bulbs with CFLs, we could save about 100,000,000 tons of CO2 per year at an average cost of -90USD per ton or -9,000,000,000USD. That’s right. We would save 100 millions tons of CO2 and9 billion dollars. Why is this potential still left on the table? Don’t tell me it’s because of mercury. Coal-fired power plants produce more mercury than in all the CFLs that will ever be made. And if you have small children and are afraid that they will break a bulb and drink the mercury out of it, buy LED lighting instead! Anyway, the symposium and many of the attendees I met were both quite interesting.

As it turns out, the event following the ACEEE symposium at the University of California, Washington Center was a book signing by Ralph Nader. And so I met the man and got a signed copy of “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” I didn’t mention that I am still somewhat bitter about the 2000 election. Although in fairness, aside from that debacle, Ralph has been using his powers for good. Mrs. Bluejay—who was off to her own machinations for the day—was jealous. Jeez, it’s not like a got a signed book from Patti Stanger!

P.S. Speaking of blogging as release. Having seen Randy Pausch’s blog, (here is the last lecture if you haven’t seen it), followed the slow death of a husband of an acquaintance through her blog (I can’t find it anymore, I think she took it down), and now reading about this woman’s journey/blog, I am coming to the conclusion that blogging—if nothing else—may be the best way of coming to terms with terminal illness.

P.P.S. Offshore windmills may ruin vistas and kill many birds, especially if placed along migration routes, but they will not ruin as many vistas or kill as many birds as British Petroleum. As if Louisiana hasn’t been through enough.

P.P.P.S. I’m sorry, what’s wrong with these austerity measures? Especially, when the alternative is being picked up at auction by China?