Ideas for Change in America

Change.org is a kind of public idea tourament.  There are a bunch of different subsections: agricultural policy, government reform, energy, etc.  Readers vote and comment on the ideas, and the top few ideas in each category advance to the next round.  Larry Lessig has submitted Citizen Funding of Congressional Elections whereby only public money and small contributions can be applied toward election campaigns.

Not sure how well this kind of system can work.  Many of the highest rated ideas don’t sound very productive…

California Backstory Barcodes

California officials launch ‘Green Chemistry’ initiative – Los Angeles Times.

The idea is certainly good, but there’s a lot of bookkeeping that will need be done within the myriad supply chains that create the products, that isn’t getting done now.  Does California have enough clout to force it to be done?  Seems unlikely (even if we are the Nth largest economy on earth, where N is small).  Really we need to partner with the EU, and other like-minded bodies to come up with a single standard we can all adhere to.  This is the kind of thing the WTO should (for instance) be about.

Rearranging vs. Reinventing the Global Economy

The US road to recovery runs through Beijing says Asia Times Online, and Thomas Barnett emphatically agrees.  Everyone is talking about how to reorganize the global economy, but mostly the discussion is about how to most efficiently export our recently collapsed model of growth to the developing world.  Better this time around for sure, we say, but not fundamentally different in any way.  The Chinese need (and want, it turns out) more domestic consumption and consumer debt.

Continue reading Rearranging vs. Reinventing the Global Economy

Our Electricity

After being asked rhetorically a couple of times if I knew now much I paid for my electricity, and whether I knew how much power my fridge was using ($0.13/kWh, and I don’t know) I bought a “Kill-A-Watt” power meter to see where our $18/month in electricity usage was going… just out of curiosity.  It turns out that watching a movie costs abot $0.08 in electricity.  The Cold Box (beer) uses about $3/month worth of power.  The fridge itself, usually the largest power hog in a household, is close to half our usage at $8/month. Making a batch of coffee in the french press, using the electric kettle is about a penny.  The other big electricity users are the stove and oven, and the washer and dryer (though we hardly use the dryer).  They can’t be measured with this thing because they use 220V outlets, which are generally hidden away and inaccessible anyway.

After those miniscule numbers, I was amazed to discover that a day’s worth of computation (24 hours, including some research related number crunching by my laptop, my desk light, my backup disk, and my 30″ cinema display) came in at $0.50!  So, at least for me personally, at roughly $15/month my computer is by far my largest expenditure of electricity.  Interesting!

I’d love to build (and live in) a condo that tracked the water and power usage of each unit, and within each unit each outlet/faucet/etc, in real time, posted to the web, and displayed in the communal entryway.  Visibility goes a long way to influencing behavior.

What is Human

The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.

I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans.  People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum.  Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me.  I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef.  This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.

What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans?  When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?

A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human.  The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification?  Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.

Look who’s irrational now… everyone!

Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Texas, has just published the results of a survey of American religious belief.  One of the findings, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, is that

…conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe. The researchers say this shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion.

This comes right after the paragraph in which it is revealed that 55% of Americans believe they have a guardian angel watching over them, and preventing harm from coming to them, and that 45% of Americans have had at least 2 “religious encounters”, such as:

…hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God to do something, being protected by a guardian angel, witnessing and/or receiving a miraculous physical healing, and speaking or praying in tongues.

Unsurprisingly, the presumably Baptist researchers concluded that such experiences are central to American religion, and that adhering to a conservative brand of Christianity conveys resistance to belief in “the occult and paranormal”, ignoring the fact that the “religious encounters” are in fact instances of the paranormal.  They may be Christian paranormal, but they’re still paranormal: “denoting events or phenomena that are beyond the scope or understanding of normal scientific understanding” or if you prefer, Christian occult: “supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena”.

I’m sure there’s a wealth of information in the survey results regarding the supernaturalist beliefs of Americans, but from this non-theist, naturalist’s point of view, the main result is that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not engage in skeptical inquiry.  Their domains of credulity may be distinct (guardian angels vs. bigfoot) but on the whole, they are happy to accept extraordinary claims without any evidence backing them up.

I’m potentially open to an argument that rationality and skepticism are not neccesarily always favorable.  The second life lesson Robert McNamara put forward in The Fog of War was: “Rationality will not save us.”  He was speaking in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which several nominally rational people almost brought about a thermonuclear holocaust, and the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and countless other cities in WWII.  The Tradgedy of the Commons is a failure based entirely on rational individual behavior, as was the tulipomania from which our financial system is currently suffering a serious hangover.  But on average, I’d say rationality and skeptical inquiry are things we (humanity) could do with a bit more of.

Congress seeks to ban open access requirements

A bill duplicitously entitled the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” (HR 6845) has been introduced in congress with the goal of prohibiting federal science funding agencies such as the NIH, NSF, NASA, etc. from making their grants contingent upon open access to the published results.  Currently, a large proportion of federally funded biomedical research comes with a requirement that the results be listed in the Open Access PubMed database.  Proponents of Open Access journals have seen this policy as an example of the way things should work – publicly funded research should have publicly accessible results – but now this system, and progress in that direction, is in jeopardy.  HR 6845 would prohibit any federal funding agency from making their funds contingent on public access to the results.

The bill has been referred to the House judicial committee.  Our representative, Adam Schiff, is on the committee.  If you support open access to scientific publications – especially publicly funded scientific research, please contact him and tell him to oppose the bill.  Senator Feinstein is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and should also be contacted.

More information including background on the NIH open access policy can be found at the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.  You can track the bill’s progress at OpenCongress.org.  If you do call, write, fax, or e-mail your representative or senator, please e-mail Jennifer McLennan (jennifer [at] arl [dot] org) and let her know.

I want a city like this

Why is it that new housing developments in the US are filled with giant cookie-cutter houses crammed in next to each other, and burdened with ridiculous covenant requirements of lawns and four car garages, without a grocery store in walking distance?

Why can’t we have places like Freiburg’s Quartier Vauban?  (pictures on Flickr, and another, and another)  5000 people, and one main street with a speed limit of 30 km/hr, smaller side streets meant primarily for bikes and walking.  No parking on private property – all cars have to be stored in the structures at the margins of the development.  40% of the households have no car.  A light-rail connection to central Freiburg (which is all of 2 miles away).  600 on-site jobs of various kinds, including the grocery store that’s within walking distance of the entire community.  Lots of different kinds of (mostly smaller) living spaces.  Vegetable gardens and fruit trees.  Public playing fields and parks.

*sigh*

The Keeping of the Light

Several years ago, Yuk Yung noted, either in seminar or at one of his lunch talks, that overall, as a system, the Earth, including its biosphere, actually does not consume energy.  This isn’t so surprising if you think of it like a lifeless rock – of course a spinning asteroid being shone upon somewhere between Jupiter and Mars isn’t consuming energy, it’s just absorbing and re-radiating, by σT4.  It re-radiates at a lower temperature than the sun, and it re-radiates isotropically; the quality of the energy changes, its entropy increases, but the amount of energy coming out, of course, is the same as that which is coming in, barring any interesting chemistry that might take place as a result of the incident radiation.

For some reason, the same statement, applied to the Earth, seems stranger.  We think of life as consuming energy somehow, but really it doesn’t.  At most, the Earth system acts as a temporary energy buffer, as our indigenous biology catalyzes the formation of chemical bonds, using mostly sunlight as a power source.  But by now, overall, the Earth is in almost perfect energetic equilibrium.  The light comes in at nearly 6000 °K, and it comes in nearly parallel.  It leaves at a few hundred degrees Kelvin, and in all directions.  All that’s changed is the entropy, unless there’s a net creation (or destruction) of ions or chemical bonds, or a change in temperature, on the way through.  Somehow, life extracts order from this flow of energy.  “We eat negative entropy.”, Yuk said.  We consume information, transmuting the physical order of the star’s light into the chemical order of life.  We grasp at it as it passes through, and in that grasping, live.

The material with which we encode this order, with which we briefly hold the light, is itself also the product of stars.  I’ve known this since I watched Cosmos as a kid.  We are the “stuff” of stars, but somehow the fact that our order is also somehow tied up in the order of stars, quite literally, seems odder.  We’re some kind of entropically driven reaction.

It seems to me that this physical reality is ripe for mythologizing.

The stars are great unknowing givers.  They are radiant, and generous, and terrible.  They can receive nothing in return for their gifts, incinerating their lovers.  They say to us, without knowing, “Take this light and hold it.  Use it as it passes through you, to know, and to perhaps preserve, against the chaos, and cold dark emptiness of space.”  And so we are become the receivers of the light, composed of the cold cinders of the stars.  We keep the light that only they can make, but which they cannot hold.  I think it’s a difficult and sacred thing to do, to just keep holding on.

Georgia and Russia, sittin’ in a tree

Pravda has put out a helpful timeline of the current Georgia-Russia conflict

Maybe I have a one track mind but, I don’t think this kind of conflict often erupts for purely egotistic political reasons. There’s a lot of energy backstory that isn’t being told in that Russian chronicle, such as the sabotage by someone of natural gas and electricity supplies headed into Georgia from Russia (gee, I wonder who it could have been… in the depths of a Caucasian winter in January 2006), the subsequent commissioning of the South Caucasus gas pipeline in December 2006, and all of the wrangling that’s been going on over the trans-Caspian gas pipeline since the mid 90s (Russian and Iran don’t want it, everyone else does, because Russian and Iran have gas already, and everyone else gets their gas from them).

Perhaps the largest diplomatic stick Russia can wield today is its oil and gas reserves (assuming they don’t want to actually like, invade a NATO country, or shoot off some plutonium fireworks), and they are jealously guarding the ability to wield that stick. Georgia has successfully circumvented them with the pipeline from Baku to Turkey (and eventually on to Europe), and I think in part now, they’re paying the price, so that others in central Asia with gas they’d like to independently pipe out of the region, including, perhaps most importantly, Iran, think twice about setting up their own circumvention. For instance, Iran built a pipeline into Armenia. It was supposed to be extendable, eventually onward to Turkey and Europe. Before it was built, Gazprom bought a controlling interest in the pipeline company, and summarily reduced the diameter of the pipeline from 1.4m to 0.7m, making it unable to carry enough gas for extending it to Turkey and Europe to be worthwhile.

I think that the blurring, or erasure, of the lines separating nations and corporations is interesting, and at least somewhat unexplored.  (Maybe one major difference is that a nation-corp can more dependably rely on its nation’s armed forces to step in occasionally.  Though, historically, US companies have had a pretty good chance of getting help on demand, at least in Latin America).  We wouldn’t be surprised if Exxon did something like buy up a potential competitor, but when a nation does it, how do we react?  In oil and gas, all of the major players are nation-corps. I think this is actually one of many very good reasons for the industrialized world (that, by and large, has used up its oil and gas) to invest heavily in renewable alternatives to oil and gas. If we develop renewables for national security (and environmental) reasons, the costs may well be reduced enough that other economies can use them simply because they’re cheap, distributed (more difficult to sabotage than a pipeline or LNG terminal), and don’t require you to be on good terms with Russia, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or get permission from the IAEA to spin up your centrifuges.

Pipelines are beasts curiously subject to consensus, because they are so easy to destroy.  If anybody in the area doesn’t want one to function, it doesn’t.  So Russia may well be able to maintain its pre-eminent position as gas supplier to Europe for a long while to come, and keep the squeeze on in central asia indefinitely.  At least, until we stop relying on natural gas.  Or until someone in central asia really decides it doesn’t want Russia’s natural gas infrastructure to function.  Now wouldn’t that be fun for everyone!