Monday, May 31, 2010

Oil Spill Update

The latest attempt by BP to stop the leaking called "top kill" officially failed over the weekend. Now they are going to try to contain the spill by cutting the riser, which is the broken pipe, which would temporarily increase the flow, and then fit a new pipe to the surface. Meanwhile, relief wells will be drilled, which could stop the spill by August. I'm skeptical of all these efforts, of course, since they're all being performed by the same people that caused the original spill, and all the information about these maneuvers are likewise controlled by those companies. Meanwhile, the government and independent scientists attempt to figure out what the facts are.

From the BP May 29 press release

Despite successfully pumping a total of over 30,000 barrels of heavy mud, in three attempts at rates of up to 80 barrels a minute, and deploying a wide range of different bridging materials, the operation did not overcome the flow from the well.

The Government, together with BP, have therefore decided to move to the next step in the subsea operations, the deployment of the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) Cap Containment System.

BP also has recently come out in denying the existence of underwater plumes of oil/dispersant. BP clashes with scientists over deep sea oil pollution. Hopefully scientists can manage their public relations better this time and finally gain more credibility than BP.

Today I was just saying how it's hard to really feel empathetic with Louisianans over this spill when many of them still support the oil industry and ridiculed those who warned of inevitable environmental destruction. Ironically, right after I said that a Louisianan congresswoman came on the radio and talked about how she and her constituents are against the 6 month off-shore drilling moratorium imposed by Obama.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Nature in the Neighborhood

There is a hawk's nest near Alewife station in Cambridge on an office building next to the Fresh Pond Mall. A lot of onlookers have been hanging out everyday with their binoculars and telescopes just watching their day-to-day activities. The two parents are "Buzz" and "Ruby." They have three chicks and they're almost ready to fly for the first time. I've stopped by a couple of times, and it's really fun.

Ernie Sarro has been out there a lot and he has posted some videos on the his CCTV blog.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Letters to the Editor

Some interesting comments published in the NYT. Some of the people are in the oil industry.

Monday, May 24, 2010


yesterday I was watching TV, and I watched Good Night and Good Luck again, and also this old musical Gigi.

Gigi was about a French girl being trained by her grandma and great aunt to be a courtesan. It was a look into early 1900s French society, which was interesting because I don't know anything about it. I had no idea being a courtesan or mistress was such a profession. It's more like being a professional girlfriend.

Both of these movies had some moral contradictions. On the one hand, Gigi and her family of courtesans are wholesome, but on the other hand, she is being trained to be a girlfriend and sell her body. Gaston is a gentleman, but also kind of a sexual predator in another lens. Then again, I guess all women are trained to be girlfriends and then wives, and nowadays people divorce when they tire of each other, which is like changing mistresses.

In Good Night and Good Luck, it's not really that ambiguous since McCarthy's methods were really ridiculous. At the same time, I think it turned out that perhaps some of the people on his list, perhaps maybe even a majority, did have some ties to Communism, although that doesn't mean they were a security threat. In the case of Annie Lee Moss, there is evidence that actually she probably did join the Communist Party briefly inadvertently, although it's unlikely she did anything to help. At any rate, it was a very interesting episode of public opinion vs. news media vs. politicians vs. corporate interests.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Apartment to myself

My roommate has gone to Asia for a couple of months and so I have the apartment to myself in the meantime. It's really nice to have my own space and to have more time being alone. I haven't had this much personal space since high school, and it's really nice. I feel very comfortable and there's a feeling like cheerful nostalgia and deja vu.

It's not really about having more privacy, since at that time I lived with my parents, who tried to keep tabs on me all the time. Plus, Chinese parents don't tend to have much respect for privacy of their children, probably because they grew up and always lived in much more crowded spaces. Even so, I lived more "inside my head" then because I wasn't always around friends or other people I need to interact with socially and blab my thoughts. I also don't have any siblings so I just spend nights, weekends, and summers mostly by myself. So I guess the big difference from now is that I spent a lot less time socially interacting with peers.

Since going to college, I've made many adjustments. I really like interacting with people and I'm a very social and political person. However, it has been hard for me to learn to think while other people are around. I've gotten a lot better but it's still hard for me to think while interacting with people socially. Usually, I kept those two tasks very separate. If I didn't understand something, I could always spend time figuring it out alone in my room rather than working it out in front of everyone.

Hanging out with myself, I never have to wonder if I am in anyone's way or what some other person's plans are. I think I do get lost in my head and my actions are somewhat more automated. It's almost like I just do whatever my body wants, more literally whatever I "feel" like, rather than having to think deliberately about anything. In some senses, it leads to a more selfish and self-centered way of thinking. I mean, you just spend all the time thinking about what you want, how you feel, etc. Then again, that's what being an American adolescent is all about for some reason. At any rate, it is a mode of existence I've forgotten about, but it's definitely nice. And maybe I'll think better and get more done. :)

Deep Sea Oil

The latest on the spill from the NYT

Giant Plumes of Oil Forming Under the Gulf

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Democracy in the Information Age

Democracy, especially the kind we have in the US, requires an informed voter base. Otherwise, corporate interests end up making all the policy decisions. While it's good to foster a healthy private sector, no matter how you look at it, the bottom line for a corporation is not always aligned with the goals of a government, which I think are to make lives better for all citizens.

It seems like today's technology like the internet should enable voters to make much better informed decisions. However, most people don't have the time to really go through all the information, and people tend to cherry-pick the information that is aligned with what they already believe. In recent years the news has become increasingly partisan such that there is no news source which reaches everyone. I think now it's becoming clear that decision-making is more about belief than really making informed decisions, especially because of the complexity of issues today.

Liberals such as Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, and Frank Rich are frustrated at the rise of anti-government and anti-regulation conservatism in the aftermath of a financial meltdown and oil spill. He writes about how the extreme right has gained legitimacy in his latest op-ed. In other recent op-eds, he's been talking about the anti-regulatory mood of the public. Sex, Drugs, and the Spill and Berating the Raters.

At the same time, all of them realize that people are right to be upset about things. It makes sense that people are upset about the bank bailouts and the subsequent bonuses. All in all, the white collar workers have hardly been affected in this crisis. People are right to be upset about the price of health care, and it makes sense that they're concerned about the extra paperwork and possible inefficiencies from a government mandate for everyone to have health care. People have a feeling that corporate interests are colluding with the government. However, they are not right about what policies they think should be adopted.

I wonder if a better way to run the government is for people to vote on what problems they would like solved rather than on policies. I'm not sure how different it would be from how things are done now. I suppose people mostly vote for politicians they think will be able to solve their problems. Politicians have platforms where they talk about what they think are the biggest problems and their plans. I would hope that if we were more focused on identifying the problems and then giving a mandate to more knowledgeable and qualified people to solve them, that we'd have better policies, but actually, what we might end up with is just more of the same where corporate interests dictate policy.

My main concern is whether people are really be able to vote on policy because while we live in an information age, our lifestyles and jobs are pretty specialized at this point. While people had their specialized professions when the US was founded, at least they still had to do many things for themselves since they could just not hire services or buy things off the shelf the way we do today. Within one company, people in the marketing department don't know anything about engineering and vice versa. Those in the car manufacturing industry don't know anything about the energy industry or construction or agriculture or the health care industry, and the financial sector is a big mystery to everyone, of course. The system we have now is interest and advocacy driven so your piece of the pie is only as big as you can fight for. How can people really make informed policy decisions for the long term well-being of a nation as a whole?


So, apparently I am really absent-minded or just brain dead, and this whole time I've been paying $650/month for rent when my place is actually $625... doh!

Well, I'll get a discount next month! Whooo!

ADHD Linked to use of pesticides

A study that points to a possible link

It is not proven yet, but organophosphate pesticides seem to cause neurological damage in children, which is more obvious in developing countries where more children are exposed to pesticide use due to living in farming communities.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lynn Posts on Gulf Spill

Lynn wrote a blog post on the gulf oil spill at the Green Blog.

Gulf Oil Spills Onto Political Shores

Yes, the House Republican Conference has assembled an “Energy Rapid Response Team” ready to convince you that more offshore drilling is necessary, for great fear of rising costs of importing oil and fueling at the pump.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Value of System Dynamics

I've found that a lot of people are skeptical towards system dynamics as a method. I also have a hard time explaining what it is, especially in comparison with other modeling methods such as conventional economic modeling because I don't really know much about other modeling methods.

One common criticism is that it is too subjective because system dynamics models can accommodate subjective variables such as level of material well-being or crowding. While system dynamics can be used to model completely physical systems where we already have a pretty good understanding of the dynamics, such as a pendulum, it is more often used for modeling social systems such as the organization of a business or the urban population.

It seems that many other systems models for engineering and economics are geared towards having inputs and getting outputs. For example, how many kW should each generator on the grid be supplying, how much profit does the company expect this quarter, what percent of the profit should be spent on R&D, etc. The power of system dynamics, in contrast, is not in the accuracy of getting numerical answers, but rather in gaining understanding of the dynamics of a complicated system. A system dynamics model can help users find out the causality of different outcomes, what actions have the most leverage, and what behaviors are just symptoms. I still feel there is a lot of potential for system dynamics, but I am trying to maintain a critical attitude to better understand its limits and differences from conventional models.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

China Climate Change Policy: Deliberate and Wily

I went to that China Climate Change Policy talk at MIT on Friday. My Chinese isn't good enough to understand everything, but anyway the slides were in English. The presentation was an overview of the current situation of emissions and an overview of the various climate change talks that have happened like Kyoto and Copenhagen. It was fun to hear directly from the Chinese point of view even though I already know it.

Basically, much of China's energy use is in the industrial sector because half of the world's production of things like steel, aluminum, and flat glass is in China. So industrial energy use accounts for something like 70% instead of 30-40% of energy use in the US. Transportation in China accounts for 10% instead of 30% in the US. Most of electricity in China is from coal, and the presenter talked about the need to upgrade and regulate the quality of coal power plants. He also talked about how China has invested a lot of money in clean energy R&D, although he thought that it's not as much as some reports have said (like the Pew).

One thing that I thought was interesting was that he talked about how planting trees for carbon sequestration is needed, but since the carbon is just stored in the trees, it's not a continual emissions sink that can offset the use of the fossil fuels. I'm glad he brought that up because I think that point is not always presented coherently.

He talked a lot about the different climate conferences and what came of them. He pointed out that nobody is doing very well with their emissions targets set in the Kyoto treaty except for Germany, which has had something like 40% emissions reductions from 1997 levels. He also noted that Russia had a lot lower emissions, too, but I think he said it was due to a bad economy. From the Chinese point of view, it looks really bad that the US has not really made an effort at all to reduce emissions and now only promises a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, and yet there has been no progress towards that goal. On the other hand, Chinese goals don't seem that ambitious, but they have some goals for reducing carbon intensity of GDP by 40% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, and he showed a graph for that, and they were on track for meeting that target. The speaker talked about how developed nations were supposed to commit between .5-1% of their GDP to emissions reduction, but many have not been doing that. He also summarized the tensions between the EU, US, and China/India where the EU is most frustrated with the US, but the US refuses to do anything unless China is held to the same standards. China then pushes back and wants the US to take the lead and provide more financial and technical support for developing nations. He talked about how the talks, especially COP15 compared to the UN talks, have been disorganized politically, and so China has been messing around (or something like that maybe?). From the Chinese point of view, it is a defensive strategy to protect one's interests when you see there is so much confusion and little confidence in the other parties' abilities to live up to their promises. In contrast, when China announces a domestic policy goal, they have a lot of domestic pressure to meet those goals in order to maintain legitimacy as a government.

Goals for COP16 are to figure out what kind of goals are reasonable for everyone, and how these goals can be enforced.

Delay The Inevitable

NYT presentation about the The Gulf Before the Spill, pointing out that there is a lot of environmental degradation anyway that are happening slower than the oil spill so it is not as noticeable. Maybe the Gulf was screwed anyway or maybe the oil spill will cause it to be cleaner than it otherwise would be due to clean up efforts.

Scientists Finally Standing Up For Themselves

Leading scientists condemn 'political assaults' on climate researchers

This is interesting and exciting because one of the things that came out during the panel talk about communicating about science was that scientists need better PR and they need spokespeople.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

China and Climate Change Policy

MIT CEER Pizza Dinner Talk: Climate Change & China's Policy

Looks like an interesting talk tomorrow. He'll be speaking in Chinese. Whoa. I'm going to go, but I probably won't be understanding that much. Haha

Speaker: Mr. Dong Song, Deputy Director of the Climate Change Office, Legal Department of the Foreign Ministry of China

Climate change and its adverse effects are a common concern of the international community. As the largest greenhouse gases emitter since 2006, China?s emission trends, policies and actions in addressing climate change attract a lot of attentions from the world. This presentation will brief on the following dimensions of the issue of climate change and China: climate change and its impacts on China; emission trends of China; China?s efforts in addressing climate change; China?s positions on climate change negotiations & cooperation; China?s outlook of the forthcoming COP16 of the UNFCCC.

Speaker bio:
Mr. Dong Song has been serving as the Deputy Division Director in charge of policy planning at the Legal Department of the Foreign Ministry of China since 2009. During the period of 2006-2008, he held the post of Deputy Director of the Climate Change Office at the Legal Department of the Ministry. Now he is a Master of Arts candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of the Tufts University.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Roundup Consequences

NYT article on farmers starting to have trouble this year with weeds as bugs are becoming resistant to Round-up.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Carbon Price Climate Legislation

The debate continues on the Breakthrough Blog. They respond to two op-ed's by Friedman and Krugman on the topic of pricing carbon. I haven't read through the whole thing, but it's interesting to keep up with the latest articles on the topic.

Expensive Spill

Spill is here to stay for a while.

Honestly, if people can move, I think they should move.

I think that the surprise that people are expressing about the spill shows how most people don't really understand the nature of engineering. In engineering, Murphy's Law is the law of the land, "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." The only question is how much money and time are you willing to put into designing a system to decrease the failure rate. Many consumer products like laptops and cellphones seem like miracles to people, and they are. However, a lot of resources go to quality control where the factories screen for the defective products so that consumers may have overly positive idea of what engineering is capable of. I think if people really understood that, they wouldn't be so cavalier about offshore drilling and other risky engineering projects where the chance of a mistake is low but can be devastating.

1969 Oil Spill off the coast of California shows that any for-profit company will try to spend the minimum amount on disaster-proofing their operations. It may not just be because they want extra profit but because it may be critical to keeping their businesses afloat.

Union Oil's Platform A ruptured because of inadequate protective casing. The oil company had been given permission by the U.S. Geological Survey to cut corners and operate the platform with casings below federal and California standards. Investigators would later determine that more steel pipe sheating inside the drilling hole would have prevented the rupture.