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Delusion Points November 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, economy, family, football, politics, taxes.
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I like to read. I also have a healthy dose of morbid curiosity. But I will not be adding Decision by King George XLIII to the Philly Bluejay reading list. At least not as long as I have to pay for it. It’s not that I mind spending money on books. Au contraire, mon cheri. I dropped $200 at Kramer’s last month, and another $110 at Amazon a few weeks ago. It’s just that I don’t want any of my money going to Bush. Especially because it’s certainly all about the money for him. About “replenishing the old coffers.”

I’m not being cynical and presumptive. When invited to speak to the Chicago Union League, Bush didn’t thank mayor Daley for a chance to talk to the hardworking people of Chicago, he thanked him “for a chance to sell his book.” And in interviews with Matt Lauer, Oprah, and Greta van Susteren, he repeatedly answers pointed questions with “Read my book and draw your conclusions.” I guess one could interpret this answer as evasive, as Bush unable to defend the actions and inactions of his presidency on camera. But it isn’t. He isn’t at all interested in defending himself, in explaining himself, in polishing his image, in apologizing or rationalizing, or in brightening the dim view history will take of him. He’s too intellectually lazy for that degree of reflection and too morally void for that sort of aspiration. He could care less what history thinks of him. He just wants money so that he can spend the rest of his days kicking around on the farm. This is probably all he wanted even while he was president. To him, the presidency wasn’t some great opportunity or awesome responsibility, it was the quickest way to a rich, lazy retirement.

And he evidently took the same route with DP. Unable to give Crown Publishing an original manuscript, Bush lifted passages from journals and other memoirs that describe his presidency. And who didn’t see this coming? Did anyone believe that Bush could write a 700-page book? Or even have enough original thoughts to give a ghost-writer 700 pages of material? Of course not. Bush has probably never read 700 pages worth of books. This is the same man who claimed that his favorite book was “The Very Hungry Caterpillar“—a book that was written when he was 19 years old! Someone should check whether any quotes from TVHC appear in DP. “On Tuesday, the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked and I felt really bad. I had a tummy ache. On Wednesday, I ate a bright green leaf and I felt much better!”

The most telling thing about this episode? No one is shocked or outraged by this. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Bush. The man who cheated his way into the White House—does everyone realize how different would the world be today had Katherine Harris allowed the 2000 Florida recount to proceed? the mind boggles—who lied us into a war, who sanctioned torture, who spied on American citizens, who stopped stem cell research, and who made one thoughtless, dogmatic decision after another over the course of eight years the world may never recover from. Why would he start doing things the right way now? Why, when he repeatedly got away with doing them the wrong way during his presidency?

And so I will not purchase a copy of DP. At least not until it drops below the price of toilet paper. From the looks of it on Amazon, that should be the case before Thanksgiving.

P.S. Speaking of Bush, one of the most asinine moves by the increasingly Machiavellian GOP is the way in which they are holding the middle class tax cuts hostage for tax cuts for the top 2% of earners. Debt, shmedt! Middle class, kiss our @$$! People making half a million or more will get their tax cuts or no one is getting anything! Ladies and gentlemen, your new House majority!

P.P.S. This past Friday, I attended the ACEEE Conference on transportation efficiency in the 21st century. The most memorable speaker of the day? Joe Romm of climateprogress.org. Joe is a fiery and abrasive man. He prefaced his talk by saying that it was usually a waste of his time to speak to such small audiences and ended it by getting into a shouting match with David Greene about the future of fuel cell cars. He was assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under Clinton. Had he still held the post, he would have been my boss’ boss’ boss. It’s hard to imagine someone with his personality as assistant secretary. Then again, maybe he developed this personality during the eight years of the Bush climate “policy.”

P.P.P.S. In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed questions and comments from Israeli readers on several NFL blogs, including TMQ and John Clayton’s 1st and 10. Evidently, football is gaining popularity in the land of milk and honey. Witness the Kraft Family Israeli Football League. I wonder how an IFL all star team would fare against the worst NFL team? Or against University of Wisconsin? Or Trinity High School?

P.P.P.P.S. Speaking of the NFL. Eagles-Redskins. MNF. The Mrs. and I will be in Section 450. This would never happen if the game was in Philly.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Happy belated birthday, sista!

The Expert Problem October 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, politics, society.
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My current DC Metro book is “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb—a full report is coming when I finish. The Black Swan theory says that history is largely a product of low-probability, high-impact, unpredictable events—think fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, Facebook—and that bell-curve events are low-impact essentially by virtue of their predictability. There are several interesting and counter-intuitive conclusions that fall out of the BS theory. One is that “book” smarts are often useless—even dangerous—in the real world because the artificially simplified world of the academy often prejudices one to believe that he understands the world more than he does, to underestimate the unknown and its effects, and to willfully ignore risk. Another is that fields that are fundamentally dynamic and prone to exogenous influences also fundamentally resist expertise—only static, self-contained fields can have true experts. Physics lends itself to expertise—it’s a closed system and the rules don’t change over time. So does brain surgery. And plumbing. But economics doesn’t have experts—economists are only slightly and insignificantly better than non-economists at predicting future economic events. Neither does politics. Nor business. Nor, fundamentally, can any discipline that deals with human subjects. The famous adage that “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is trivially both true and false. It’s trivially false because history never exactly repeats itself, even in microcosm. The same social and techonolgical context never comes up twice, nor does the exact sequence of external events. It’s trivially true because in a rough sense even those who do know history are doomed to repeat it, insofar as history repeats” itself. Knowledge of historical events does not help much in predicting the future. And you laugh dismissively when I tell you that I could run the Eagles or be a decent Senator! Well, I don’t know about the Eagles, but I would certainly be a better Senator than some of the yahoos who will appear on actual ballots this coming Tuesday. You don’t need to know much about the theory and history of politics and economics to be an effective legislator. Theory—which doesn’t capture large unpredictable events—and history—which never repeats—exactly are largely irrelevant in determining whether a given piece of legislation will achieve its desired effect.

The political “expert problem” is interesting in light of the alarming number of (Republican) candidates for national political office who are ignorant and seemingly proud of it. I parenthesized Republican because all the ignorant candidates I can think of are Republican. Christine “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” O’Donnell. Ron “This election is not about ‘details’” Johnson. Sharron “I can’t spell Sharon” Angle. If BS is right and deep knowledge may be as much a hindrance to legislative and governance success as a pre-requisite, then maybe TEApublicans are on to something. Maybe Samantha would make a kick-ass Senator.

Nah! Taleb downplays domain-specific knowledge in some domains but not the process of acquiring knowledge or the tools used in acquiring it—intelligence, curiosity, and skepticism. Deep reserves of knowledge are rarely helpful in dealing with a given economical-political situation, what is helpful is the ability to gather information specific to the situation at hand, to weed out low-order details, and to weigh outcomes of different strategies.
While Team Christine certainly lacks domain specific knowledge—at least in constitutional law although perhaps not in other domains—she also lacks the tools to deal with real-world situations. All she has is doe eyes, white teeth, and Sunday-school dogma.

The ironic thing about the “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” campaign is that it actually proves Christine’s point. What Christine is hopefully trying to say is that she didn’t have the opportunity to go to Yale because she isn’t an old-boy/old-money elitist like her opponent Chris Coons. But whereas old-boy/old-money may describe Yale of the 1950s, Yale of the 1990s has need-blind admission policies and enrolls more women than men. Christine didn’t go to Yale because she wouldn’t have gotten close to getting in if she tried. By saying “I didn’t go to Yale” Christine may as well be saying “I’m not intelligent!” and by saying it with the tone that suggests “I wouldn’t want to go to Yale even if I could!” she is effectively saying “I don’t want to be a Senator!”

Christine, what do you think the Senate is if not Yale 2.0? The point of Yale is not to learn more than you would learn at Fairleigh Dickinson or the Claremont Institute or Wilfred Beauty Academy or wherever it is you went, it’s to get to hang out with other people smart enough to get into Yale! Christine, you are obviously ignorant. But that’s not your biggest problem. The biggest problem is that you lack the mental tools and desire to overcome your ignorance to suit the situation. What is the last book you read? Facebook? Could you give a specific action item for any one of your issues? A cap-and-trade system is a “market-based” approach to the energy problem—do you favor that? How many points behind Coons are you polling? What’s four plus two? By the way, the answer to the last question is 6. And to the one before that is 18. Which thankfully means that after Tuesday, we will never hear from you again.

Unfortunately, we might still hear from Mr. Johnson—leading stalwart Russ Feingold by an incomprehensible six points—and Ms. Angle—ahead of majority leader by four points, albeit in a beaten-down state like Nevada. I understand the anti-incumbent backlash. I don’t agree with it but I understand where it comes from. But anti-incumbent does not equal pro-idiot! How did we as a society get to a place where a large swath of us values ignorance over erudition? Blind faith over intellectual curiosity? Claremont Institute—which by the way is a conservative think tank, not a college—over Yale Law? If you had to have brain surgery—or even a root canal—would you like to be treated by Christine O’Donnell or Chris Coons? If you were on trial and facing the death penalty—or even six months in Martha Stewart-ville—would you want to be defended by Sharron Angle or Harry Reid? How did we get to a place where we value intelligence and competence in most places except for politics? How did we get to a place where we simultaneously scream about the incompetence of government but fawn over clearly clueless politicians? People, we have huge problems. Now is not the time to be putting crackpots and morons in Congress! An ignorant doctor can kill a few people. An ignorant politician, properly placed, can actually do a lot more damage than that.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go restore sanity! Woot!

P.S. This post was partially inspired by Anne Applebaum’s “Rise of the ‘Ordinary’ Elite.” The piece describes a new kind of populism which is not “anti-elite”, but “anti-elite-education.” Its targets are not the old-money, old-boy elite but the new, upwardly mobile, self-made elite. Working-class to White House elites like the Obamas. The piece is interesting precisely because of the angle it avoids—racism! Applebaum may not want to touch this subject because she likes her job at the Washington Post, but I have no such problems and I will touch most things. Merit-based elite education is the great equalizer. It’s the “in” to the circle of national politics and power. What could be worse if you are an ignorant white person than to see a black family use that vehicle to get into the passing lane and blow by you. While elite education was the privilege of privilege, you could always pretend that “you could have been a contender” if only you were born to the right parents. That elite status was not fairly earned and—by juxtaposition your non-elite status—was not your fault. But now that elite education is open to all and you still can’t get a sniff, you have no one to blame but your ignorant self and perhaps your ignorant parents. And given this what could be a more transparent self-preservation strategy than to pretend that elite education doesn’t matter anyways? And that you wouldn’t avail yourself of it if you tried? Who do you think you’re fooling other than ignorant people like yourself? Pfffft.

Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Taxed October 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, taxes, weird.
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One of my favorite parts of my temporary new job is the commute. It’s between 30 and 40 minutes each way, but all on public transportation. This not only gives me the moral authority to browbeat people about their energy consumption—I’m not part of the problem! I use public transportation! My carbon footprint is only 12 times that of an average Indian, not 14 times!—it also gives me time to read in relative peace and while I am more or less awake. In fact, I am somewhat surprised by the relatively small number of people that read on the Metro. On any given day, I would say that fewer than 20% of the people on the Metro are reading, and most of those are reading that free magazine you can get as you come into the station. What are the other 80% doing? 20% are texting. 20% are listening to iPods. 20% are staring blankly into space. 19% staring blankly into space, listening to their iPods, texting in one hand, and holding the Metro newspaper in the other. 1% are trying to extricate themselves from the Metro doors.

The first book I read entirely on the Metro was Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” I won’t rehash Friedman’s thesis—the best thing America can do for itself and the world is to go seriously Green—Friedman does that just fine. I did want to say three things about the book though. First, I love that the cover is sampled from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch. Look no further than GoED for proof that they had very good psychotropes even in the 15th century! With publishing margins as slim as they are these days—although perhaps not for bankable stars like Friedman—why pay for cover art? Sample a renaissance painting for free!

Second, one of the things that struck me about “World Is Flat”—HF&C’s predecessor—was Friedman’s own itinerary. Bangalore. Shanghai. Doha. Copenhagen. Sao Paolo. Back to Bangalore. The most frequent refrain in WiF is “I just kept on moving.” Readers of Philly Bluejay know how I feel about business air travel. Friedman may fly more than any person on the planet! This was bad in an absolute sense but not hypocritical in the context of the book—WiF is about globalization. But HF&C is about climate and the Energy Era and yet the itinerary is similar. London. Mumbai. Dalian. Multiple visits to every continent except for Antarctica. I hope Mr. Friedman purchased carbon offsets for all of those air miles! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fly to San Francisco. For business. Tom, I kid because I love. And because I am a hypocrite.

Third and finally, I want to elaborate on Friedman’s point about the necessity of a carbon tax. One of Friedman’s sub-points is that a clean energy revolution will never truly take off without a clear, loud, consistent and projectable price signal on carbon. The market will not move away from carbon—at least not efficiently and at scale—unless they know what staying with carbon will cost and unless that price is sufficiently high. Short of privatizing the atmosphere, the fastest way to create this signal is by government regulation. And here he advocates a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Friedman views cap-and-trade as a kind of “hidden ball” trick—a way for the government to limit emissions in a way that does not result in direct costs for consumers or a direct trail of money back to itself. In a perfect world, the government hands out emissions credits, electric utilities buy and sell them amongst themselves and customers don’t see increased rates, and when they do, they don’t see that money going to the government. Friedman claims that this kind of shenanigan hides the true urgency of the problem from people—people are not going to change their habits unless they see how their actions translate directly into costs. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But I think that a better and more accurate way to state this problem is that a cap-and-trade system isn’t an effective price signaling mechanism because it doesn’t behave like a traditional price!

A price is a constant. The price of the first unit of is the price of the millionth unit. With a price, cost is always proportional to consumption and you can safely map out the future. Not so with cap-and-trade. With cap-and-trade, the price of a unit purchased under the cap is far less—perhaps infinitely less—than that of a unit purchased over the cap. And whether a unit is over or under depends on overall demand, not on your demand. Which system do you reckon would be more conducive to economic growth? “Neither” is not an option!

Meanwhile, the real commodity here is not electricity—or even coal—it’s CO2. It’s easy enough to create a cap-and-trade system for coal or electricity. A CO2-emissions-from-coal exchange would consist of a relatively small number of individually large participants. A cap-and-trade makes some sense in this case. But oil companies do not operate like utilities and so the CO2-emissions-from-gasoline effectively consists of millions of small participants. Cap-and-trade is logistically much more difficult here! And remember, if cap-and-trade were a true pricing mechanism than it would be possible to trade gasoline emissions for electricity emissions. Anything short of a holistic economy-wide cap-and-trade will effectively create a market distortion, effectively subsidizing uncapped sources of emissions at the expense of capped ones. Market distortion—specifically, implicit subsidies for carbon emissions—is how we got ourselves in this mess to begin with!

Perhaps Tom and I can discuss these points en route to Sacramento. Or maybe at the checkout counter at the Whole Foods on River Road. Tom, Text me!

P.S. The cover art of HF&C contains several images from the Paradise and Earth panels of GoED, but none—as far as I can tell—from the Hell panel. Was this intentional? A better cover would have had a sample from “Paradise” on top and “Hell” on the bottom. No?

P.P.S. Another suitable cover for HF&C—although not renaissance and likely not royalty free either—would have been a pair of paintings by neo-Bosch Salvador Dali. Butterfly windmills on top and that-painting-with-a-giraffe-on-fire-which-I-swear-is-by-Dali-but-I-can’t-find-a-link-for-so-now-I-don’t-know on the bottom.

P.P.P.S. Wonder if the Taliban puts this on their recruiting posters.

P.P.P.P.S. If you drop something on an escalator, never shoot your hand down to try to catch it while it’s falling. I’m just saying.

Trifecta September 24, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, football, politics.
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It’s been a good six months. If you took the fossil fuel disaster three team teaser. What? Vegas doesn’t give odds on such things? Are we sure? Each of the big three fossil fuels has experienced a major US calamity in the past six months. April 4th, an explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch coal mine in aptly named Montcoal—that’s coal mountain for the Franco-unwashed—West Virginia kills 25 miners. April 20th, an explosion on the Beyond Petroleum/TransOcean/Halliburton Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles southeast of the Mississippi delta in the Gulf of Mexico kills 11. September 9, a PG&E gas line in San Bruno, California ruptures starting a fire that kills six, including an acquaintance of an acquaintance and her eight year old daughter.

Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster I posted that there are two costs associated with fossil fuels. There is the slow and certain, low-margin-but-high-probability, frog-in-a-boiling-pot-of-water cost of CO2 emissions. This cost is much talked about. But there is also the awful but random, high-margin-but-low-probability, shock-and-awe cost of disasters. This cost is usually much talked about in the immediate aftermath of the disaster—”if it burns, it earns”—but soon forgotten as the “cost of doing business” or the “price of progress.” And it is rarely if ever mentioned in the fossil vs. renewable fuel as a major point for renewables. And why not? Because of the rare and random nature of the disasters themselves and because blame is always assigned to the companies rather than to the fuel. It’s not coal’s fault, Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and preferred to appeal fines than to bring its mines up to code! It’s not oil’s fault, Beyond Petroleum didn’t install the acoustic blowout prevention valve and Halliburton used sub-standard concrete to seal the well! It’s not natural gas’ fault, PG&E didn’t properly inspect the pipes! Well, that may all be true but the deeper truth is that no company, however earnest and by-the-book can avoid disaster indefinitely. Disasters happen. Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place. And to the degree that molecules can be at fault, coal, oil, and natural gas are themselves the problem. The thing that makes fossil fuels useful is that they burn. But this same property is also responsible for disasters—sometimes they burn prematurely and spectacularly. And yes that is the cost of doing business … with fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s time we take our business elsewhere.

The same dichotomy plays out on the grander scale of climate change. The kind of climate change that gets the bulk of the press is the high-probability-but-low-impact kind—and here I am using the adjective low in the relative sense, specifically relative to the climate change not talked about. There is a one hundred percent chance that global average temperature will increase by one degree Celsius by mid-century. A one hundred percent chance that floods, droughts, heatwaves, hurricanes, and wildfires will increase substantially in both frequency, duration, and intensity. A one hundred percent chance that ocean levels will rise by about 20 inches displacing 500 million people and robbing the world of 20% of its food producing river deltas. A one hundred percent chance that we will lose between 10 and 20% of all plant and animal species on earth. A one hundred percent chance that climate change mitigation will eat as much as 3% of world economic output. That’s the climate change most Americans know about and the kind that frankly probably doesn’t sound that bad to most Americans who don’t live in Florida and Louisiana—8% of Florida’s land area and 24% of Louisiana’s is within 20 inches of sea level. But there’s the climate change almost no one talks about, the low-probability-but-high-impact kind. There is a one percent chance that global average temperature rises by five degrees Celsius by midcentury. A one percent chance that we lose all the ice in Greenland and Western Antarctica and sea level rises by 43 feet, displacing two billion people and robbing us of 60% of all arable land. A one percent chance that we lose as many as 50% of all plant and animal species including … maybe … humans. I made up the one percent number. I don’t know what the probability of climate disaster is. No one does. The earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems have too many non-linear feedback loops. But the point is that this kind of climate change—climate disaster—is also part of the equation. The price of progress. The cost of doing business. And while there may be a way to rationalize the risk of the occasional mine explosion, oil spill, and gas main rupture, is there a way to rationalize this kind of risk?

P.S. The DC Metro vs. Philly Bluejay score is now 2-1 Metro. On vacation at my sister’s a few weeks ago and out of reading material, I borrowed her copy of David Sedaris’ “Naked.” I generally do not read fiction—one of my mottos is “real life is fiction enough”—but “Naked” is not really fiction. It’s autobiography. And it’s pretty funny. My favorite short was “A Plague of Tics” or any mention of David’s mother. I was about 20 pages from the end when I left “Naked” by the SmarTrip machine at Friendship Heights. When I returned that evening, it was gone. And so was my faith in mankind.

P.P.S. Speaking of DC Metro. Anyone else notice the geometrical theme of the stations? Federal Triangle. Judiciary Square. Pentagon. Dupont Circle. Ballston.

P.P.P.S. I wasn’t planning on running my streak of sports related items to whatever it is now—four straight posts? five?—but I feel that I have to comment about the situation currently going on with the Philadelphia Eagles. Six months ago, head coach Andy Reid jettisoned 11-year quarterback Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington, largely on the strength of two spot starts by backup Kevin Kolb. This despite repeated proclamations that Donovan would be the Eagles quarterback in 2010. The move was seen as a slap in the face to McNabb—who along with late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson “made” Reid—but not as knee-jerk, or self-serving. After all, Donnie 5 had ample opportunity to get the Eagles a Lombardi trophy. Now, two quarters into the Kevin Kolb era Reid has effectively jettisoned Kolb, largely on the strength of two spot appearances by backup Michael Vick. This despite repeated proclamations that Kolb would be the Eagles quarterback in 2010. This move is a slap in the face to both Kolb and a slap in the face to McNabb and knee-jerk and self-serving. Not to mention self-destructive. Will Kevin Kolb ever be a starter in the NFL? I hope so. He deserves a shot. Can he ever play for Andy Reid? I don’t think so. Would you ever play for someone who threw you under the Liebherr T282B? For that matter, will anyone play for Andy Reid having seen what he’s done to McNabb and Kolb in the span of six months? Andy, this better work or this year will probably be your last coaching in the NFL. Mike Kafka, get your helmet ready!

P.P.P.P.S. Kolb/Vick-gate happened late Tuesday night. Too late for TMQ to weigh in. Tune in next week.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Rumors are flying that Philly Bluejay icon and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may be stepping down after the elections to run for mayor of Chicago. Who will replace him? What about moi? I’m Israeli. I’m a ballbuster. I will cut off my finger if I have to!

Just What Environmentalism Didn’t Need September 2, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, crime, environment.
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For the next year, Philly Bluejay will be multi-casting from the home office in Bethesda, MD. Bethesda Bluejay … Philly Terrapin … Philly Bluejay 20816 … is on hiatus from the glass and red-brick ivory tower and spending the year working for Uncle Sam. Both figuratively—I am working at the Department of Energy’s Building Techologies Program. And literally—my boss’ name is Sam, and he is certainly old enough to be an uncle.

Philly Bluejay saving the world one building at a time—just what environmentalism didn’t need? Well the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the title refers to something that happened just a few zip codes over at One Discovery Place, Silver Spring, MD 20910—Philly Bluejay wanted to live in either the 20910 or 20915 zip codes for the sole purpose of playing on 90120 or 90125 but alack, 20816 is closer to Mrs. Bluejay’s work. Yesterday morning, one James Lee walked into Discovery Communications Headquarters carrying a rifle, shells, and two pipe bombs. He allegedly fired a shot into the air before taking three hostages, making a list of demands, and negotiating with police for over four hours. He was finally shot and killed by a sniper when he pointed his weapon at one of the hostages. Mr. Lee claimed to be willing to die for his views. And he did. I am sure that he regretted that he had only one life—and 15 minutes of fame—to give.

Mr. Lee did have some valid aims—we do in fact need to find a way to stop global warming. Although his ways and means were less than practical—all human procreation and agriculture must cease immediately! And while some of his programming suggestions were good—enough with Kate+boobjob+eight and with the Duggars and their 19 children—others were just loony—can we really have enough shows about little people, the morbidly obese, or conjoined twins? I say no! But in the end, he was a nutball, peeved that Discovery Communications could not find a place for his television show in its lineup of stations—Discovery, TLC, Sc, PlanetGreen, Animal Planet, and the Military Channel to name six. Really, could we not get an hour of Mr. Lee rather than the umpteenth rerun of Shark Week or that insufferable Bryan Cox on Wonders of the Solar System?

The problem with nutballs is that they give legitimate causes a bad name and opponents of those causes ammunition. Is it bold to predict that in the coming days Beck/Hannity/Limbaugh or some TEA Partier will paint Mr. Lee as the face of the environmental movement? Environmentalists are nutballs! Drill baby drill! Kate Gosselin for congress! And nutballs never advance their chosen cause in any real way. Did the goofs at ELF (Earth Liberation Front)—the outfit that set a Seattle subdivision on fire several years back to protest over-development—stop northwest exurbia? Did this freak actually save any animals? Now, nutballs with their own ships are something else completely. If you have your own ship, you can do something! If you are a nutball with your own ship, Discovery Communications will beat a path to your door and put you on prime time! Mr. Lee, your biggest mistake was not plowing into headquarters with a ship!

But nutballs for good causes are not as harmful as respected critics of the same. There is a particularly good example in this case—the late Dr. Michael Crichton of of Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, and Disclosure fame. Bright, articulate, and successful as he was, Dr. Crichton was one of the most visible deniers of anthropogenic climate change and argued vociferously that we should spend our monies and energies on one hundred more important pursuits and problems before we turn to carbon dioxide. He even wrote a book called “State of Fear” about a band of environmental terrorists and the protagonists who foil them, presumably with the aim of calming down what he viewed as environmental hysteria. I’m not sure how much impact his writing and speaking had, but it’s fair to assume that he had some. He was a visible dude with the ear of important people. If only he were alive to see the shit that is going down today. In “State of Fear” the eco-terrorists try to set off strategic explosions in Antarctica in order to detach an ice sheet. Detaching ice sheets? Now that’s fiction.

My suggestion to would-be eco-nutballs? Forget about whales and squirrels and the red-bearded monkey and the four-assed monkey—but not the bluejay, no no—start protesting the fact that gas is still 2.73!

P.S. No P.S.’s today.

P.P.S. Oops!

A Rare Sports Post August 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, music, society, sports.
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Philly Bluejay is a bird of the people. Not an elitist who reads only about science, economics, politics, and other high-minded pursuits. He likes to read potty-mouthed rants about meaningless pursuits like sports as much as the next person. And no one does potty-mouth sports rants like fellow-blogger-turned-ESPN-columnist-turned-big-cheese-McGee Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons. If I couldn’t be Gregg Easterbrook or Chuck Todd—I couldn’t be Chris Matthews or even Keith Olbermann, but I could definitely be Chuck Todd, I even have the Chuck Todd goatee—I would certainly be Bill Simmons. I’ve been reading Sports Guy for over ten years. I like the conversational, college dorm tone, the pop cultural references—did you think I got my pop culture from actual pop culture? please, who has the time?—the sports-as-life-and-life-as-sports analogies, the “theories”, the arbitrary rankings for things—the thirteen levels of losing—the constant need to rank and re-rank, look at things from every possible angle, the mailbags, the trade suggestions, the “Sports Gal” cameos, and the endless parade of Federal Witness Protection Program buddies known only by nicknames like “House”, “Hench”, “JackO”, and “Bish.”

BS has written two books. “Now I Can Die In Peace” about the 2004 Red Sox—he’s a huge Boston sports fan—which I will never read. And “The Book of Basketball” which I recently finished. TBOB is a 700 page magnum opus about the history of the NBA according to Bill. The highlight is a new 96-man countdown of a new pyramid-style Hall-of-Fame topped by a “pantheon” of NBA demi-deities that can go only by their first names—Moses, Shaq, Oscar, Wilt, Magic, Larry, Kareem, Michael.

I can’t imagine thinking about basketball as much as BS does—did I mention that this is a 700 page book by someone who is essentially just a passionate fan?—but it’s fun/amusing/interesting to know that someone can. That he can. Perhaps my favorite part of the book were the incessant footnotes—just the footnotes themselves would be about 250 pages and would form a semi-coherent book. And my favorite footnotes were of the form “so-and-so was the starting on the all-time X team. The starters on the X team were who, what, and I don’t know, the sixth man was whathisname, and the coach was thatguyonthatshow.” X was “Afro,” “lefty,” “known alcoholic,” “white guy that played like a black guy,” and so on. In that spirit, I thought I would contribute a few obscure all-time teams of my own. I’m not an NBA historian so these guys are mostly guys that I’ve seen and remember myself—they all played in the late 1980s or later. I tried to fill in an actual team, with a player for each position. Here goes.

All ugly team: PG: Sam “ET” Cassell, SG: Kerry Kittles, SF: Scottie Pippen, PF: Tyrone Hill, C: George Muresan. 6th man: Dennis Rodman. 7th man: Popeye Jones. 8th man: Tom Chambers. Coach: Jeff Van Gundy. Hide the women and sheep. I could have gone another 20 here.

All Jewish team: PG: Jordan Farmar, SG: Jon Scheyer (should have been drafted), SF: Omri Casspi, PF: Amare Stoudemire C: Danny Schayes. Coach: Larry Brown. Commish: David Stern.

All ink team: PG: Stephon Marbury, SG: Allen Iverson, SF: Kenyon Martin, PF: Dennis Rodman, C: Chris Andersen. Coach: hmmm, hard to say here, but I will go with Larry Brown.

All Johnson team: PG: Kevin, SG: Joe, SF: Marques, PF: Earvin “Magic” (point power forward, the man could play all five position), C: Ervin “No Magic.” 6th man: Dennis. Coach: Avery.

All Abdul team: PG: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, SG: Tariq Abdul-Wahad. SF: Shareef Abdur-Raheem: PF: Alaa Abdelnaby C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 6th man: Al-Farouq Aminu. Coach: Larry Brown.

All girls team: PG: Avery Johnson, SG: Gail Goodrich—OK, I did not see Gail play, he retired in 1979, but BS did mention that had one of the all time “porn starlet” names—SF: Tracy McGrady, PF: Jackie Butler, C: Stacy King, 6th man: Stacey Augmon. Coach: Kiki Vandeweghe.

All Jackson Five Team: PG: Marlon Garnett (1998 Celtics) SG: Michael Jordan. SF: Jackie Butler. PF: Tito Horford (1988-1990 Bucks). C: Jermaine O’Neal. Another admission—I had to Google for an NBA player named Marlon. Surprisingly, the name Marlon seems to have gone out of style despite such worthy cross-over torch bearers as Brando and Wayans. On the other hand, I should get points for not having to Google Al Horford’s dad. Also, I think it’s fitting that best player of the bunch is named Michael.

All superhero team: PG: Dwyane Wade. SG: Stacey Augmon. SF: George Gervin. PF: John Salley. C: Dwight Howard. Get it?

Other teams I tried to put together, but couldn’t think up of enough players? The all Snow White team—I didn’t have a center to go along with a backcourt of Glenn “Doc” Rivers and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, and forwards Julius “Doc” Erving and “Happy” Hairston, with Eric Snow as sixth man. How is it that no one has stuck Bill Walton with “Dopey”? The all Jr. team—guys whose fathers played in the NBA, not necessarily whose proper name is so-and-so Jr.—but again I didn’t have a center to go with Stephen Curry, Damien Wilkins, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Al Horford. The all NFL team—guys who played basketball in college but became pro-football players instead. Not suprisingly, most college-basketball NFL players are power forwards—Julius Peppers, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez. The only one I could think of who wasn’t is Donovan McNabb who played backup point guard for Syracuse. The all dermatology team—guys with bizarre birthmarks or other skin conditions—again, I didn’t have a center to go with Delonte West (birthmark), Charlie Villanueva (alopecia), Terry Cummings (that same pigmentation disease that led Michael Jackson to bleach himself), and Shane Battier (what is up with his wavy scalp?). It just goes to show, a good center is hard to find.

P.S. Still on sports. If Mr. Clemmens can get three months for intentionally vomiting on two people at a Phillies game, then I figure disgraced Illinois governator Rod “I’m not evil, I’m just goofy” Blagojevich should get about 1,750,000 years for intentionally vomiting on the 14 million residents of Illinois.

P.P.S. There are few sports figures I find less annoying than Brett Favre. And not just because he pronounces his name a non-phonetical Farve. Yes, he’s a freak of nature—the Wolverine of quarterbacks. Yes, he’s won a SuperBowl and three most valuable player trophies. Yes, he has child-like enthusiasm for playing, a Mississippi drawl, rugged-looking crewcut and stubble, and a wife who beat breast cancer. But in the ultimate team sport, Brett is the ultimate me-first diva—a selfish limelight hog who lets his teammates do the hard work in training camp and his organization scramble for replacements while he contemplates his future on his farm, and invariably rides in on the owner’s private plane to save the season and grab the credit. Would you want to play with someone like this? Or even be around him? And did I mention that he’s a terrible actor? And where does he get off acting like this? Yes, he was truly great in 1996-1999—and miraculously in 2009—but in 2000-2008 he wasn’t even a top-10 quarterback anywhere other than in his own mind. Well, guess what? The fifth consecutive Summer-of-Brett has officially begun. And I seriously hope that Brett decides to go for good, takes down a promising season for the Vikings who were completely unprepared for this—and why would they be? the previous four retirements were promptly retracted—and leaves us with the lasting image of the egotistical prima donna he is.

P.P.P.S. Congratulations to Mark and Megan, recently upstaged by Marc and Chelsea—is it just me or does Chelsea look like the girl from The Exorcist in this picture, complete with all white eyeballs? Yipes!

P.P.P.P.S. Want to feel old? Did you know that Tom Petty is 59? Still throws a mean—albeit short—concert though. And still draws in the teeny-boppers. And their moms. And grandmothers. And bikers.

Philly Bluejay Is Not A Facebook Page! July 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, education, music, society, sports, technology, weird.
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I recently finished Jaron Lanier‘s manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget.” I had started it a while ago. Then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced it. And so I started with another book—Len Fisher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Then I found YANG and was immediately presented with a dilemma. Should I finish YANG while the first 150 pages are still edible, post about YANG, and then finish a still edible RPS and post about it? Or should I let YANG expire, finish a fresh RPS and post about it, then finish a rancid YANG and post about it? I decided to follow my culinary rule—always eat the oldest still-edible leftovers—and go with YANG first. Gulp.

If you haven’t heard of Jaron Lanier, he’s a computer-scientist-slash-musician-slash-I-guess-author. In computer science circles, he is known as the father of virtual reality. In music ellipses, he is unknown—at least to me. And in computer-science-slash-music hypocycloids, he is known, but not as well-known as Monzy. Lanier is an Edgie. He’s also a one-time roommate of Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. I know of both Lanier and Stallman and I did not know that—it’s always interesting to find out how famous people are connected to one another. For instance, did you know that George H. W. “41” Bush and Saddam Hussein were both Freemasons? Truth!

YANG is Lanier’s rant against “cybernetic totalism”—a term of his own coinage. Cybernetics is the study of control systems. Totalism is i) totalitarianism, ii) a new style of music that appeals superficially to neophytes and on deeper levels to sophisticates, and iii) a doctrine of wholeness imposed by brainwashing. Strangely, all of these definitions seem to fit Lanier’s dogma. As I understand it, cybernetic totalism is the opposite of humanism—it is the elevation of information and the machines that process it above humans. Cybernetically total ideas include “free culture,” open source software, crowd sourcing, and the Singularity—think “The Matrix.” Cybernetically total manifestations include Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—most of Silicon Valley and South Africa, actually—and hedge funds. Oh, and blogs! I have no use for Facebook—hi everyone, my name is Amir and I’ve been off of Facebook for ten months—or hedge funds. But where would I—or really anyone—be without Google and Wikipedia? And where would I be without blogs? In existential limbo! And how can anyone hate on open source software? Are Lanier and Stallman still on speaking terms?

Let’s start with open-source software. Actually, I understand the limitations of open-source development. There’s the “too many chefs spoil the broth” problem. There’s the “who let the cat out of the bag?” problem. And there’s the “you get what you pay for” problem. But open-source software not only provides free software, it provides “market” pressure on pay software! Yes, an open-source community may not be able to come up with a new product like an iPhone. In fact, open-source communities may be best suited to creating knock-offs. But knock-offs are a viable and a valuable economic niche. Where would we be without generic drugs?

Onto Wikipedia. Lanier doesn’t so much harsh on the idea of Wikipedia, but rather on the idea that information and its presentation should be shaped by an anonymous crowd rather than by individuals. He may or may not also be bemoaning the notion that the Wikipedia encourages shallow interaction with information—as if reading Wikipedia is akin to reading Cliff’s Notes. I love Wikipedia. I’ve learned many things from Wikipedia, even things about my own purported area of expertise. I probably read an average of ten Wikipedia entries a week. I just read the entry for Freemasonry (not quite like reading “Da Vinci Code”). Before that I read the entry for Italic Typefaces (more interesting than you would think). Other recent entries? Recession Shapes (ouch). The Avengers (my son asked me). The Sinister Six (ummm … yeah). Computational Fluid Dynamics. Navier-Stokes Equations (from latter). SSE4. NAMBLA (just checking if you’re paying attention, but it does does have a Wikipedia page). Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Clean Air Act. Reverse Osmosis. I understand that one could spend years studying each of these topics. But I don’t have years! I have half an hour and need a quick tutorial and perhaps a list of good references. Where else should I go?

Next, hedge funds. There was a lot of weird stuff in this book that I couldn’t really digest, but there was at least one suggestion that I thought was interesting and useful. And strangely enough it has to do with finance. The financial meltdown in October 2008—now that I write it, I don’t know whether that feels too recent or not recent enough—was at base a product of bad loans. But the real culprits were opaque financial instruments that chopped up the underlying risk so finely until it was no longer recognizable as risk—in the same way that industrial hamburger is no longer recognizable as beef. Lanier proposes to create a formal language for describing financial instruments and to outlaw instruments that cannot be written in this language. This would restrict financial engineers, yes, but not in a bad way. It would prevent them from creating contracts that they themselves don’t understand and which cannot be effectively tracked or regulated. When the next crash comes, we’ll know exactly who to blame and how much money was lost! I joke, but this is a really good idea and it needs to happen. Sadly, I don’t think it made it into the House finance reform bill.

Finally. Blogs. Lanier contends that most blogs are “unreadable” and urges bloggers to post only if they have something new to say. And that this something should be a non-knee-jerk reaction that took at least several weeks to ferment—lest the post dilute and devalue “real” journalism and reduce the signal to noise ratio of the noosphere. Ouch. On that note, I think I will end this post, shut down Philly Bluejay, and return to Facebook.

P.S. Speaking of Facebook. You think you have $12,600,000,000 coming, Paul Ceglia? I came up with the idea for Snuggie™ in 1995! I want my two dollars!

P.P.S. Today is the midsummer classic—the major league baseball allstar game for the unwashed. Every year around this time there is always talk about “fixing”—making better not rigging—both the game and the sport. I don’t have much to say about the game other than I don’t really care about it. As for the sport, I admit I haven’t thought a ton about this, but I have a simple and workable suggestion that should improve things and that I have not heard before. Currently, baseball’s 30 teams are divided into a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. The NL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 6-team division. The AL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division. Both leagues send three division winners plus one “wild card” team to the playoffs. Both leagues primarily play within themselves, but each team also has 5 or 6 six inter-league series each year. You may have already guessed my suggestion—move to two 15-team leagues with three 5-team divisions in each league. This means that there will be one interleague series on every day of the schedule—occasionally there will be three—rather than packing all interleague series into a two-week stretch in June. But that’s presumably fine. The benefits will be improved fairness for NL teams, especially for teams in the 6-team NL central. Currently, teams in the 5-team AL East and Central have a 27.3% chance of making the playoffs—a 1 in 5 chance of winning their division plus a 1 in 11 chance of winning the wild card on the 4 of 5 chance they don’t win the division. Teams in the 4-team AL West have an even better chance of making the playoffs—32.3%. However, teams in the 5-team NL East and West have only a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs and teams in the 6-team NL Central have only a 22.8% chance of making it. Ignoring baseball’s economic structure—which arguably plays a bigger role in which teams make the playoffs than the division structure—is it fair that the Houston Astros enter each season almost 10% less likely to make the playoffs than the Texas Rangers? Economics aside, wouldn’t it be better if every team had an equal 26.7% of making the playoffs? I can’t believe NL Central owners haven’t gotten more upset about this.

My Inner Coelacanth June 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, crime, politics, science, weird.
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The Penn Reading Project is a 20-year old tradition designed to introduce incoming freshman to “intellectual life at Penn.” Each spring, a small cabal of Penn faculty selects a book. In July, that book is sent—either as pulp or as DOI—to the matriculating class and to faculty discussion leader volunteers. Students are expected to participate in one or more faculty-led discussions about the book at several points during the year. It’s a neat idea. Having been a faculty member for nine years, I have yet to lead one of these discussions although I have read some of the books—Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” (PRP 2004), Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (PRP 2007), and just now, a few years late, Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” (PRP 2008). By the way, last year’s PRP was not a book, but a Philadelphia Museum of Art painting by Philly native Thomas Eakins—“The Gross Clinic.” The selection of a painting rather than a book “… as the PRP subject launched as [sic] special series of “Arts and the City” events sponsored by College Houses & Academic Services and other university departments.” I hope it isn’t also a concession to the sad fact that generation Z (?) doesn’t read books.

Back to “Inner Fish.” I don’t know what the class of 2011 learned from it, but I learned three things. First, I learned that the complexity of life may appear miraculous—with features from wings to eyes and all the way down to basic multi-cellularity possible only through the most serendipitous alignment of the stars and molecules—but the reality is much closer to a mundane and iterative arms race between predator and prey. Many of the “advanced” mechanisms we have now are straightforward variations and combinations of mechanisms present in far simpler creatures—including microbes! Microbes could always chemically attach to one another for the purposes of feeding. That same ability was repurposed to enable multi-cellularity—which itself was probably a defense mechanism against being eaten by single-celled microbes. And so on. And so on. La di da.

Second, I learned a sea of fascinating facts about anatomy, development, and genetics. For instance, did you know that fish can smell but can’t hear and dolphins can hear but can’t smell? I didn’t. I suppose if you would have asked me “which of the ‘five senses’ are fish missing?” I would have guessed hearing because—”Finding Nemo” aside—that seems like that least useful sense in underwater life. But that would have been a guess. And if you would have asked me “which of the ‘five senses’ are dolphins missing?” I would have guess none. After all, they are mammals—and highly evolved ones at that—why should they not have all five senses? But they don’t. Evidently, smelling in water is genetically different than smelling in air—makes sense from a chemical standpoint I suppose. When dolphins returned to the water—being mammals, they are descendents of terrestrial creatures—they were equipped only with air-smell genes and machinery. Because that machinery is useless in the water, mutations that disable or distort it are operationally benign. Over time, those mutations accumulated and the mechanism broke down entirely—does this mean that dolphins can’t taste also? Humans have gone down this road a ways too. Over 300 of our roughly 1,000 air-smelling genes—that’s right, a full 3% of our genome is devoted to making cellular protrusions that can bind to and thus detect different kinds of chemicals in the air—are already disabled by this same mechanism. You like this kind of stuff? There’s more in the book. Did you know that 70% of your sensory cells are in your retinas? Did you know that non-primate mammals only have two kinds of color receptors and cannot distinguish as many colors as primates? Did you know that dogs and bees can smell fear?

But the last thing I learned? Don’t try to write a book if you aren’t at least a semi-professional writer! Know why “Tipping Point” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” read so well? Because Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan are journalists! Neil Shubin is not a journalist and that’s why “Inner Fish” reads like a cross between a textbook and a Mr. Men book. And I like Mr. Men books! Maybe this doesn’t bother me as much as it would bother some other people, but when I read a book which uses big words and latin, I want to be “spoken to” like a grown-up. Neil, if this gets back to you, don’t take too much offense. It’s obviously easy for me to criticize having never written a book of my own—and not intending to in the forseeable future. You’ve obviously carved out an interesting and productive career for yourself. You’ve obviously made contributions to science. You obviously have many interesting things to say. But please, get a ghost-writer! I’m not looking forward to reading “Your Outer Geoduck.”

Anyways, it seems that Penn has learned its lesson. Fresh from my inbox, the 2010 PRP book is “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters” by Rose George, Penn alumna and thankfully—a journalist. It’s on the queue.

P.S. In the epilogue, Shubin mentions that the question he is asked most frequently about “Inner Fish” concerns climate change. Specifically, whether climate change will make Arctic paleontology easier. Really, people? That’s the most pressing climate change-related evolutionary question you have? I have a different one. Will climate change accelerate evolution by applying new external selection pressures? What new plant/animal/human variations are we going to see?

P.P.S. Don’t know what a Coelacanth is and too lazy to Wikipedia it? A Coelacanth—pronounced seal-a-kanth—is a lungfish with primitive arms and legs inside its fins. For a while, it was thought to be a link in the chain from fish to amphibians. For a while, it was also thought to be extinct seeing as the youngest specimen was a 60,000,000 year old fossil. Then in 1998, an Indonesian fishing trawler dragged one up. You can see why Bluejay likes Coelacanths—not only are they bluish, they are also quite handsome. Hey guys, where have you been hiding for the last 60,000,000 years?

P.P.P.S. Have your own idea about how to stop the BP oil spill? Contact this dude. detonating a nuke near the well to “squeeze it shut” has been suggested. Has anyone suggested trying to plug the leak with Joran van der Sloot? If he’s too small, maybe we could try Rush Limbaugh.

P.P.P.P.S. When I first read the headline, I thought this was a story about Sarah Palin.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I would have thought that fathering seven children with your own daughter was an isolated sickness. Apparently not.

The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.

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.