The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us is an exploration of what the Earth would be like, and has been like, in the absence of H. sapiens.

This book was as much a look at how we have changed the world as it was an exploration of what would happen were we all to vanish one day.  I especially liked the chapter Polymers are Forever, about the ultimate fate of our plastics, and The Lost Menagerie, a chapter about the missing megafauna of the Americas.  Missing, largely because we ate it.  I thought he could have spent more time on nuclear waste and our laughable attempts to plan 10,000 years into the future in dealing with it.  It would have been interesting to have a chapter on climate change too, in the event that we’ve already tipped it over the edge and into an Eocene like warm period.  Maybe better than anything else, I liked his descriptions of the wild Earth, both before and after us.  I still think we can have such a world without driving ourselves extinct.  But it would take something on the order of his suggestion that we limit our fertility rate to 1.0 for the next few generations.  Down to 500 million people by the year 2150.  Are we up to the task?  This is a real chance to demonstrate that our intelligence makes us special after all.

He occasionally rambles off into technobabble about holographically projecting our minds to other worlds… or other far out stuff, which is doesn’t really serve the purpose of the book, and is distracting to anyone with a science background.  Those lapses aside, the basic message of the book is about the beauty and perhaps the inherent value, of the Earth, even without us here to observe it.  It is an inspirational call to Zero, Now.  It’s heartening that it spent so long on the bestsellers lists, if others got the same kind of message out of it that I did.  If it’s just feeding some apocalyptic peakist zombie trance, well, then that’s less heartening.  Certainly makes me want to visit all the remaining pristine parts of Earth.  Dive the coral reefs while I still can.  Walk in every different kind of remaining old-growth forest.  And keep on composting my urine.

Lesser Political Evils

I’m registered to vote as “decline to state” (a.k.a. Independent… not to be confused with the purposefully confusing American Independent Party).  Under duress (or… on Facebook) I’d describe myself as a “Bright Green Libertarian“.  Alas, in our divisive and quantized system of government, that means I have to choose between the lesser of two evils, for all practical purposes.  The two evils being, so far as I can tell:

  • The Republicans who stand for big government in the name of large, politically well connected corporations and the military-industrial complex, with a healthy dose of social conservatism and uncritical patriotism, in order to garner the necessary votes, while still managing to screw over a lot of the poor and uneducated people who vote for them (as with the intellectuals, if only the rich will vote for you, you’re not going to get very far).
  • The Democrats who stand for big government in the name of large, politically well connected corporations and the military-industrial complex, with a healthy dose of social handouts and nominally “progressive” policies, in order to garner the necessary votes from the economically underperforming masses, but fairly libertarian social views (do whatever you want in the bedroom, and take a puff off the hookah, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else).

Given these two options, I tend to find the latter more palatable.  The “socialism” that is most troublesome in our society, I think, is corporate socialism.  Corporations have the concentrated lobbying and funding organizations to make sure they get what they want, and plenty of it, so long as the people are willing to go along.  They are the primary economic entities shuffling the chips around.

Which is more fair?  To go with only helping out the corporations and the rich, which I guess you could see as closer to the ideal of limited government (since hey, at least we’re not helping those poor people!), or to say, so long as we’re going to be intervening on a massive, multi-trillion dollar scale, it might as well be spread around evenly.  Both options are bad, but I think the former is really much worse, because it further concentrates power.  The Republican promise of small government is a total sham.  They have no intention (Ron Paul aside) of shrinking the government, of reigning in spending, or of avoiding “entangling alliances”.  That they are still able to get away with peddling that line is a travesty of journalism and public attention span.

So given the unpleasant choice, I’ll take equal opportunity budget deficits, with the consolation prize of getting the government out of the personal relationship and substance sanctioning business, over war debt and corporate cronyism with an unwanted side of illegal wiretapping and extraordinary rendition.

The part of Obama’s administration that (by far) gives me the most hope, is their apparently aggressive moves toward more, and digital, government transparency.  We’ll see what comes of it.

Dittoheads and Socialists

I have to say, it’s been a long time since I felt like the Democrats did anything politically savvy, but I think running with the recent re-branding of Rush Limbaugh as the head of the GOP qualifies.  Incredibly both Fox and the Huffington Post seem almost to agree on the substance of the story: the GOP is currently in disarray, and searching for leadership.  The dittohead masses that follow Limbaugh are a big enough voting bloc that the party’s current nominal spokesmen cannot be seen to oppose him too much outright, lest he savage them from his bully pulpit.

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Not All Capital is Fungible

There are only two real pools of capital: alternatively natural or human, external or internal, material or informational.

Natural (external, material) capital is the pre-existing wealth of the world, which was not dependent on our organization or existence: the metals we mine, the trees, the fresh water, the fisheries, solar energy, the fossil fuels, the potential for agricultural produce (as a co-location of soil, water, and climate).  Human (internal, informational) capital is the value inherent in technology, skill, organization, understanding, and knowledge.

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Notes on Biking in Pasadena

Here’s what I sent to Ryan Snyder, regarding my routes and destinations.  Send him your routes too!  (update 2009-02-26: my emails to this address have been bouncing, others have not had problems, but another address for Ryan Snyder is: ryansnyder [at] ca (dot) rr (dot) com.)

As several other people also pointed out, a big problem with Pasadena’s bikeways currently is that they pay very little heed to which roads are actually pleasant and safe to ride on.  Here are some notes on the routes I use, and avoid.  I’m an experienced cyclist, and have always used a bike as my exclusive mode of transportation (didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 25…).  I live at 200 S. Parkwood Ave. (near the intersection of Del Mar and Allen).

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Pasadena Bicycle Master Plan Workshop Notes

Update August 4th, 2009: The BMP revision is taking longer than initially planned. See this post and the comments from Rich Dilluvio for more information.

Pasadena is starting the process of revising its Bicycle Master Plan, so that it can continue to be eligible for funding from the Caltrans Bicycle Transportation Account.  I went to the first public workshop last night to find out what the revision process was going to be like, and what kinds of things the City is considering.  Overall, it was a very positive experience.  About 75 people showed up, many more than I (or, I think, the organizers) expected, including a bunch of folks from Caltech and JPL.  The consultant who’s actually writing the plan, Ryan Snyder, has worked on a lot of other bike and pedestrian plans, and was familiar with the kinds of infrastructure you see in northern Europe, and the bike boulevard projects in Berkeley, Portland, and Vancouver.  To his credit Rich Dilluvio, the Pasadena Dept. of Transportation guy in charge of bike and pedestrian projects, chose to put together an advisory committee composed of people who actually bike, to represent the interested citizenry, see below for names.

This initial meeting was mostly just to introduce the people who are going to be involved, and outline the schedule and process.  There will be at least four other workshops, and most of the participants can be contacted electronically if you prefer.  A signup for the Bicycle Master Plan e-mail list was passed around.  If you want to be notified of developments and future workshops, e-mail Rich (see below) and he can add you.  If you can’t make it to the workshops, or would just prefer to do something else with your evenings, please still feel free to contact Ryan Snyder, Rich, or the members of the Advisory Committee with your concerns, needs, questions, or any other kind of input.  In particular, Ryan specifically requested that people who ride in Pasadena, give him a list of the roads that are actually good for biking on – regardless of whether they are currently designated bike routes.

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I Was the Victim of a Series of Accidents

Kurt Klein “wonders how liberals rationalize a Secretary of the Treasury who cheated on his taxes ($34,000–oops! rounding error)”.  Well, here’s how I would do it.  Not that I’d necessarily want to be called a liberal:

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Francis Collins has no evidence for God

I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing.  However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it).  You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website.  It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

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Francis Collins at Caltech and the future of genomic medicine

Went to Francis Collins’ afternoon talk “fireside chat” with David Baltimore on the future of medicine, as illuminated by genomic work.  Too much introduction and rambling biographical information, but some good discussion anyway.  I thought his best comments had to do with the positive effects of the open data model that the Human Genome project initiated – it’s had a long lasting impact on the entire field of genomics, and thank goodness!  Also, he mentioned that as of now, there aren’t any major studies seeking to correlate and analyze the relationships between genotypes, phenotypes, and environment in the human population, and that such a study is really what’s needed to truly understand what’s actually heritable, what our real low frequency (rare allele) genetic variation is like, and what kinds of effects environmental factors play.  He pointed out, interestingly, that we don’t need to wait until thousand dollar genomes are available to start this study – what we need to do is get people signed up, and start tracking their health history and environmental factors, and we can sequence them when it becomes cheap enough.  He suggested that we ought to do this for roughly 500,000 people, and that it would likely cost on the order of half a billion dollars a year, and need to run for a few decades.  And then we’d know, and medicine would be forever changed.  He also suggested that those $1000 genomes are likely on the order of 5 years away.  Really, once we’ve got fast, cheap sequencing – this study will almost do itself, so long as we can at some point get access to the medical histories and genomes of people.  The real value add is in starting it now, so we have the information as soon as possible, and in getting all the environmental/lifestyle data, in addition to the healthcare records.

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