Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gulf Oil Still Spilling

So they can't figure out how to stop the oil from spilling so at this point about 5,000 barrels(?) are spilling into the ocean, and it is likely to hit shore sometime tomorrow.

Looks like there are about 42 gallons/barrel so that's 200,000 gallons a day. I wonder if they are saying how many barrels because people don't really know how big is a barrel so 5,000 barrels doesn't seem like a lot.

There will soon be amazing PR images of the damage, but environmentalists and scientists will need to use them well to build a solid case against offshore drilling.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bill Gates Working on His Wings

Bill Gates recently came to MIT to encourage students "to focus their talent and energy on tackling the world's biggest challenges, including global health, poverty and education."

Gates was eager to learn during his visit, opening his presentation with a two-part question. "Are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?" he asked a packed Kresge Auditorium. "And to the degree that they're not, how could we increase that, which I think could make a huge difference?"

Those questions were inspired by a weekend Gates recently spent with several friends who were eager to talk about two topics they found exciting: the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and financial markets. That got Gates thinking about how he could shift some of the focus of the brightest minds from these popular topics toward solving problems that plague poor countries, such as health, food, sanitation and governance, as well as more global issues like education and energy. Even in areas of scientific innovation, a lot of the focus remains geared toward the perceived needs of the rich, such as baldness drugs, Gates said.

Whoo! It is exciting to hear him talk about this.

Gates also wrote an op-ed piece with Chad Holliday, the CEO emeritus of DuPont, about the need for major investment in clean energy technology. They give persuasive explanations for why the private sector cannot do this alone.

But our country is neglecting a field central to our national prospect and security: energy. Although the information technology and pharmaceutical industries spend 5 to 15 percent of their revenue on research and development each year, U.S. companies' spending on energy R&D has averaged only about one-quarter of 1 percent of revenue over the past 15 years.

And despite talk about the need for "21st-century" energy sources, federal spending on clean energy research -- less than $3 billion -- is also relatively small. Compare that with roughly $30 billion that the U.S. government annually spends on health research and $80 billion on defense research and development.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Showdown Over Immigration

Arizona lately passed a very aggressive anti illegal immigration law.

NPR piece on immigration.

The Arizona legislature passed a bill on a party line vote, and Republican Governor Janice Brewer signed it, making illegal immigration a state as well as federal crime and requiring Arizona police to require proof of citizenship if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that someone is in the country illegally.

It's a very complicated issue. On the one hand, I don't think it's right for pro immigrants' rights groups to go so far as to be pro illegal immigration. Some politicians have "urged the Obama administration not to cooperate when illegal immigrants are picked up by local police." I don't really understand why this is politically a good move. It seems like proponents of the bill would feel even more justified in supporting it.

Grijalva and civil rights activists promised to march in the streets and invite arrest by refusing to comply with the law.

Gulf Oil Spill

Recently, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and collapsed. They have not yet figured out how to clean it up. I also heard that 40% of the seafood consumed in the US comes from the Gulf so this could have major impacts on industry and health in addition to the environment.

NYT article on the leaks.

Hopefully this will make people think twice about offshore drilling.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bamboo Art at the Met

There is a bamboo sculpture on the top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC this summer. It sounds really cool.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scientists Want to Communicate with Normal People

I went to a panel discussion at MIT today about communicating about Climate Change, Talking Science in the Age of Sound Bites. It was really really good. The most exciting thing they were talking about was that scientists need to build trust with deniers by acknowledging that values shape how science is interpreted and used.

Beth Daley-
Environmental reporter for the Boston Globe since 1994.

What she said: She talked about the change in print media and how the sciences sections have been downgraded over the years. Also, media has become more polarized politically so more political editorial is considered "news." She noted that there is no common basis for information anymore. There are fewer writers and she has to put out a lot more content rather than be able to work on in depth articles. She used to only write a few articles every year, but now she has to write several stories a day, blog, tweet, and even video-blog. This results in having articles that basically just paraphrase press releases. She talked about the need for science articles to talk more about human narratives to engage people rather than bland statistics.

John Sterman-
Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of MIT's System Dynamics Group.

What he said: He talked about how scientists need to sound less depressing by talking about the dream rather than talking about the nightmare. He also made some really interesting points about how scientists and environmentalists need to get away from the "deficiency paradigm," which is the view that global warming deniers just lack "the facts." Instead, there should be more focus on establishing trust and learning to communicate about values and how they influence the interpretation of "the facts." There will need to be scientists who are more trained in communicating with the public. Working on solutions to global warming is not going to be like the Manhattan project, which is what many scientists and engineers envision. It will require the public to be involved in implementation and supportive of policy.

Randy Olson-
Marine biologist turned filmmaker--"Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus" and "Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy."

What he said: Scientists are boring. We need more personalities and someone that the public trusts and would go to for advice such as Richard Feynman. However, other scientists criticized Feynman for hamming it up. He is a movie maker and has seen many attempts for scientists and Hollywood directors to collaborate, but they do not know how to speak to each other even when in the same room together. Scientists and environmentalists need to learn how to manage their public relations. They have evolved to be apolitical as people who work on discovering "the truth." However, it is a reality that scientists have ethics and values since they are not impartial machines, so there is no way to be apolitical. Scientists need to acknowledge that there is controversy about climate change instead of dismissing the deniers by simply saying there is consensus amongst the scientific community. He talked about how scientists were really unprepared during "climate gate" as well as the evolution debate and that it's an organizational problem. Someone, perhaps the National Academy of Science, needs to step it up.

Judith Layzer-
Associate Professor of Environmental Policy in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

What she said: She paints a starker political picture, saying that most of the political change has been due to advocacy groups. Policymaking is not a linear process. She also suggested that much of the weak response of scientists during "climate gate" is because of temperamental differences. She does not think the National Academy of Science would step into the role of spokesperson for scientists. She points out, though, that conservatives are also depressing doomsday sayers. Sterman responded by saying that the difference is that conservatives are resisting change, saying that there is nothing wrong with our way of life while environmentalists are trying to confront people about their way of life.

Gino Del Guercio-
Executive Producer at Boston Science Communications, Inc. and adjunct professor at the Boston University Center for Science and Medical Journalism.

What he said: He talked about being a producer on the Discovery Channel from the beginning. At first, they made good science shows, but as ratings went up, the ratings became more and more important so that there became a schism amongst the crew where some wanted to keep making science shows and others only cared about the ratings. He said that the title is often more important than the content. One thing people can do is to contribute to public television.

John Hagan-
President of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

What he said: Science needs to be embedded in social fabric.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Derivatives should not be allowed

Except in engineering. Haha

Some good pieces explaining what are CDO's.

Origins of the Financial Crisis

CDO Squared Senior Tranche

Goldman Sachs is getting sued by the SEC for fraud. That's kind of exciting.

Teacher Certification

Interesting NYT article on Alternative Education Certification. Organizations like Teach for America have been supplying more teachers these days, and there has been a lot of activity lately in reforming teaching schools and education.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Underlying Ethics that Motivate Environmental Sustainability

I'm always interested in how to convince people that we need to move to an environmentally sustainable way of life. Currently, the main arguments I hear is about how it is a moral imperitive, and that we need to preserve the earth for future generations. This vision for the world usually includes reaching economic equality for everyone and living healthily. However, I think there are some more fundamental ethics that can lead to the conclusion that we need to live within the ecological limits of the earth.

I have been trying to think about what kind of ethical values I have that made it easy for me to buy into environmentalism. The thing is that I did not need to see much data to be convinced that our way of life is unsustainable in the long term, and that we should do something about it.

For one, I value efficiency of resource use. I was brought up not to waste things so at this point seeing things be wasted like food causes a negative emotional response. This ethic is in opposition with the idea that once you have bought something, it doesn't matter what you do with it. If you can afford it, why not? You have paid your hard earned dollars for it.

The second thing is that I feel all processes should be cyclical. I remember reading about diapers when I was little and realizing that they don't decompose so they'll just sit around in landfills forever. These open loop processes bother me because I always think about what will happen eventually. I feel in my gut that everything should be at a steady state, and there should always be a balance. I'm not really sure why.

I'm still trying to think of a better explanation, but at any rate I think this ethic comes out of Chinese cultural traditions, which has been influenced by Daoism and Buddhism. Daoism is embodied by the yin-yang symbol, which says that nothing is pure and everything is made of a balance of two opposing forces. Buddhist philosophy talks about the Middle Way, and how everything should be done to moderation. It now makes sense to me that Buddhism was founded by a prince, who felt unsatisfied with a life of indulgence and opulence. Now my understanding of Buddhism is that it is about managing your mental state to feel positive and satisfied regardless of the level of your material wealth.

There are probably other ethics that are fundamental to the environmental case.

Developing content

I've been doing a lot of discussions on the Climate Collaboratorium.

Today I did a bunch of posts on the debate on behavioral economics. I'd encourage people to join the discussions.

I'm also interested in how the economic/political system affects our ethics and behaviors. It is widely accepted that the communist system in the USSR and in post-revolutionary China fostered inefficiencies because people did not have enough incentive to work hard. There is also anecdotal evidence that people take advantage of entitlement programs and benefits from being unionized.

On the other hand, it seems to me that capitalism also causes people to value only doing things that are economically rational. The belief in the invisible hand of the market has been used to rationalize selfishness and why it's best for everyone to be as selfish as possible. Within this context, there is no reason why anyone should curb their consumption or even care about their own grandchildren much less other people. Plus, the possession of things is used to express ourselves and gifts communicate to others how much we appreciate them, etc. This idea that things serve a large social function is discussed in the UK Sustainable Development Commission put out a report "Prosperity without Growth".

I think these are very controversial issues, but it would be great if we could try to study them more systematically.

Tiny Practice Rooms

This weekend I heard some music I liked, and so we went exploring, and found that there was this space with rows and rows of tiny practice rooms. There was a band who called themselves "The Roads," but it seemed like they were just starting out so they didn't have any venues lined up. Oh well. It was good.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Grow Mushrooms

NYT article on growing mushrooms! Sounds awesome.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


NYT article on using hallucinogens to treat depression.

However, I don't know if there are clinical studies, but hallucinogens like LSD seem to trigger emotional instability if used too often.

Tea Party Backers

NYT article about T party demographics.

Tea Party supporters’ fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.

The overwhelming majority of supporters say Mr. Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites — compared with 11 percent of the general public.

“The only way they will stop the spending is to have a revolt on their hands,” Elwin Thrasher, a 66-year-old semiretired lawyer in Florida, said in an interview after the poll. “I’m sick and tired of them wasting money and doing what our founders never intended to be done with the federal government.”

It is irritating to me that these people talk about revolution as if it were such an easy thing to do. These people sit in their houses with TV and drive around in their SUV's taking so many things completely for granted. They're mostly old people so it's not like they would be able to physically fight much anyway. Plus, they all take a bunch of pills everyday for their heart conditions or diabetes, etc. The whole point of democracy was so that disagreements could be resolved without total social upheaval. Revolution is very traumatizing, and it would take decades to simply rebuild the infrastructure, not to mention restore order, the rule of law, and political stability. Americans idealize revolution because it was founded by revolting against England. I would say that was a relatively clear cut struggle. Americans did not want to be taxed without representation, and ultimately England was driven out of the colonies. Who is the modern day colonizer of America? Obama? The Democrats? Anyway, if Tea Partiers want to get violent, we can have a revolution, but there will be just as many liberals interested in a new order so it will more likely be a civil war. Perhaps one side will be driven away to Alaska.

Some defended being on Social Security while fighting big government by saying that since they had paid into the system, they deserved the benefits.

Others could not explain the contradiction.

“That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.” She added, “I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Climate Collaboratorium

I have started volunteering for the Climate Collaboratorium, which is a project by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. It takes data from climate models and economic models and allows users to put together policies and debate about them. They are presenting the site this week at a conference, where they hope to get some more user activity, and I'm going to help moderate. I haven't gotten involved with the discussions yet, but I will soon.

Climate Policy and Economics Talk

John Sterman is giving a talk at MIT about climate change and economic implications.

BES International Policy and Economics: What is the Road from Copenhagen?

It's a MIT Club of Boston event.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Greenspan 70-30

Recently Greenspan testified in front of congress that he was right 70% of the time and wrong 30%, which is what Mao said about himself!!! I wonder if Greenspan even knows that. Does it mean that he was wrong a greater percentage because Mao was wrong a greater percentage? Probably. Perhaps he was wrong a greater percentage than Mao, though, because Mao at least was right during combat in WWII and the Revolution.

NYT article by Frank Rich No One is to Blame for Anything

High Speed Rail From China

NYT article about China licensing high speed rail technology to help build high speed rail lines in California. Germany, Italy, and Japan are also competing for California's business.

G.E. estimates that the United States will spend $13 billion in the next five years on high-speed rail routes. China, with a much more ambitious infrastructure program, will spend $300 billion in the next three years on overall expansion of its rail routes, mainly high-speed routes, according to G.E.

A high-speed rail link for passengers from Beijing to Shanghai will be finished by the end of 2011 or early 2012, and cut the journey to four hours, from 10 hours now, Mr. Zheng said.

New York to Atlanta or Chicago is a similar distance, and takes 18 to 19 hours on Amtrak, which must share tracks with 12,000-ton freight trains and many commuter trains.

I wonder if rail is safer or more dangerous than airplanes. It seems like it should be safer.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Economics and Finance on the Radio

two recent cool NPR pieces.

Focusing on Wall Street’s Future


Markopolos: ‘No One Would Listen’

Life Cycle Analysis

This NPR piece, Sizing Up Your Green Footprint, is about how to buy consumer products with smaller carbon footprints. The example they use is reading books on an Ipad rather than buying actual books. It may seem better to use an Ipad, but when factoring in all the costs of actually making the Ipad, you'd have to read a lot of e-books before you come out ahead.

I liked this comment, though.

When comparing the costs of books and Ipad, I’m curious if Daniel has factored in the cost of building, insuring, heating, cooling, carpeting, etc… of all the space needed for books and libraries over a period of the life of each book. I’m also curious if he has factored in the transportation of books now, and the several other instances they will change hands in the future? Also, the Ipad isn’t just a book, it also does what many computers do, but with less weight, and I’m guessing, with less energy. A better comparison would probably be with a digital reader using digital paper.

Posted by Heath, on April 7th, 2010 at 11:22 AM

Another thing is that it's hard to compare unlike things. When calculating ecological impact of products we try to put a number on things, whether it be carbon or dollars. However, it may be that cutting down trees for virgin pulp causes more damage than just the carbon sequestration lost. A major challenge is doing analysis with different units.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Window Farms

Alicia sent me this cool site about urban gardening. Honestly I can't see myself doing this for the next year or two but I probably will do it eventually. I would be really excited about having a garden with fish.

Ok To Fail

article on Simon Johnson, economist at MIT who just put out a new book 13 Bankers. His coauthor James Kwak has a blog which looks interesting.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Electric Power Systems Modeling

Another interesting class at MIT ESD.940 Electric Power System Modelling for a low-carbon economy. It's an IAP class, actually, and materials are only available to people who are in the class.

Music By Friends

Shauna has a band, and her band has a website, Me Like You. I like it.